By Camilo Smith
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Houston filmmaker Eagle Pennell has done pretty well for himself in recent years. Working as an independent, he's managed to complete three films -- the well received Last Night at the Alamo, Heart Full of Soul and the soon to be released Doc's Full Service -- each of which is connected to the other not just by their creator, but by the fact that they all got off the ground thanks to something known as a "re-grant" from the National Endowment for the Arts. Re-grants were designed to foster creativity at a regional and local level by distributing funds from the NEA's Washington, D.C., headquarters to designated regional arts groups; the group that ended up helping Pennell was Houston's Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), which has for close to a decade been arguably the most important and reliable source of funding for filmmakers and videomakers between the nation's East and West coasts.
A financial decision by the NEA last month, however, has thrown into question the future of groups such as SWAMP and independent film artists such as Pennell. Responding to a congressional edict to cut $3 million from its budget for fiscal year 1995, the NEA eliminated seven of its re-grant programs. Approximately $1.2 million of the NEA's recent cuts fell in the category of Media Arts. Half the money in Media Arts helped defray operating expenses for regional nonprofit groups geared toward independent film and video work; those same groups, in turn, redistributed the rest of the Media Arts funds -- roughly $665,000 a year -- to applicants in their geographic region. These grants, called the Independent Production Fund (IPF), were intended primarily to help unknown, obscure and minority filmmakers and videomakers.
In a press release, NEA director Jane Alexander assured independent imagesmiths and the nonprofit groups who support them that the cuts were actually less devastating than they might seem.
She pointed out that in making the cuts, the NEA simultaneously beefed up the amount of money available to filmmakers and videomakers who apply directly to the agency in Washington, rather than going through a regional organization. The amount available to those who apply directly to the NEA was increased from $633,000 to $1 million for fiscal year 1995.
"The important thing for critics of this decision to remember," says NEA spokesperson Josh Dare, "is that the NEA has been enduring these kinds of cuts for a long time, and not just in the area of Media Arts. There's no particular agenda for picking on one area of the arts as opposed to another. We recognize there's a lot of pain out there right now, but the fact of the matter is, no matter who you are, when cuts have to be made, sooner or later it's going to be your turn. There's a cliche that says a rising tide lifts all boats. In this situation, the reverse is true. Everybody gets hurt sooner or later, and this time it's film and video artists."
Dare repeats Alexander's point that filmmakers and videomakers can still get NEA funding -- they'll just have to go directly through Washington to do it. "The middleman has been taken out," says Dare. That means that no matter where an artist lives, if that artist wants NEA money, he'll have to jockey against people from every state and territory. "It's absolutely going to be more competitive now," Dare agrees. "And frankly, that probably means the artist with smaller financial needs doing work on a smaller scale will be less inclined to get funding [through Washington] than somebody with bigger needs."
Predictably, regional artists and nonprofits don't find Dare's words particularly reassuring. "When they shut down those re-grant funds, they pulled the plug on a lot of interesting new voices, regional voices, and I just can't see any good reason for it," says Pennell. "There are unknown people out there who have the potential to be really interesting independent filmmakers, and sometimes the kind of grants they could have gotten through [the Independent Production Fund] was enough to finish editing, hire a few professionals on the crew or just to pay the rent while they're getting things together."
Aside from Pennell, Texas filmmakers who have received re-grant funds through SWAMP -- which has re-granted money to filmmakers and videomakers in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands -- include Austin-based director Richard Linklater, who won $2,700 to complete his influential, low-budget experimental narrative feature, Slacker, and Dallas-area filmmakers Andy Anderson (Positive I.D.) and Ken Harrison (Texas Trilogy, Ninth Life). And for every remotely recognizable person whose careers were assisted by NEA money, there are dozens more who used the money to create tiny, personal and experimental works for limited audiences -- viewers of public access cable, members of underground film societies and fans of film and video festivals.
"This is a devastating blow to media artists in this region in particular, and for any region of the United States that isn't on the two coasts," says SWAMP director Celia Lightfoot. "It's not just damaging to independent filmmakers because the re-grants themselves were so important. It's also damaging because of what those grants represented to the artists. They were a vote of confidence in the artist's ability to do good work, and they were often used by artists to seek additional funding from other nonprofit groups and from private sources. A filmmaker used to be able to say, 'Hey, look guys -- I just got this start-up grant from SWAMP, can you help me out with some money to finish my project?' Now that opportunity is gone. It's going to make it tough on filmmakers who are young and just starting out."
Katie Cocionos, who used to run SWAMP and now acts as managing director for the nonprofit Austin Film Society, offers another concern: that in the absence of a Media Arts fund, and an Independent Production Fund in particular, the NEA will fund work mostly by people they've already heard of -- particularly higher-profile artists who live and work in Washington, New York and Los Angeles -- and bypass artists in middle-America who'd prefer to stay regional.
"Now that the IPF is gone, there are no grants available at the NEA for experimental films, short films and a lot of smaller-scale, more inventive documentaries," she says. "If you're doing offbeat work that isn't strictly old-fashioned fictional narrative, or a narrative-style documentary, then the NEA in Washington is off limits to you. It always has been really -- only now, or course, there's really no other alternative."
"It's nothing short of a disaster, an instant decimation of local film and videomakers," says Linklater, whose NEA-assisted Slacker kick-started his career. In addition to his work as a feature filmmaker, Linklater serves as director of the nonprofit Austin Film Society, which helps fund independent, experimental movies, primarily by artists who live and work in Texas' capital.
"The Austin Film Society has never been able to get through the door at the NEA in Washington," Linklater says. "The idea that we can get money from the NEA with no regional re-grant funds available, just by applying directly to D.C., is a big, fat joke."
Spokesperson Dare repeats Alexander's assurance that the NEA in Washington will be receptive to offbeat work, even by untried and obscure and unconventional artists. "I think it's a mistake to say this decision means the NEA won't be interested in regional voices anymore," he says. "Having a reputation in Los Angeles or New York or Washington won't be an advantage. It's still the quality of the work that counts."
Dare says that filmmakers and videomakers outraged with the NEA cuts fail to see the bigger, more disturbing picture: that the organization has been whittled away by Congress for years, and that it's time for artists to express support for the NEA, not hammer away at individual funding decisions.
"There are people in Congress from both parties who have been after this agency for symbolic reasons for years and years," Dare says. "But the tone of film and videomakers who call us to complain has changed somewhat since last month's elections. They're not calling just to complain anymore -- at least not as regularly. Instead, they're mostly calling to say, 'What can I do to express support for you guys and maybe discourage more things like this from happening?' The issue used to be, me, me, me. Now it's us, us, us. And I think that's definitely the approach to take."
Dallas filmmaker Andy Anderson, however, is not convinced. "What the NEA has to say in its defense is just a corporate line written by a corporate mentality," Anderson says. "It's a government variation on, What's Good for GM is Good for You. I don't want to see the organization disappear, either, but bringing that issue up is a diversion. The real issue, and what is most disturbing about this situation, is that the people the National Endowment for the Arts was created to help are the very same people they've been steadily slamming the door on in the last few years. I can't help thinking that this decision wasn't random. It was premeditated. It occurred because the re-grants program was a little program -- little grants to little people. And that's what made it easy to eliminate.