I’m Canadian by birth, now a British taxpayer. Every culture has its own harvest festival. Like many in Europe I am now painfully aware of the American Thanksgiving reminders. In my home country, and in the United States, these annual rituals were originally started to give these two young nations a sense of national identity. And to foster national pride.
Reading Ishaan Tharoor’s excellent Thanksgiving post this morning reminded me how closely independent filmmakers are aligned to the early Pilgrims in the early 1600’s.
Here’s a quick historical update. The Pilgrims were a band of deeply passionate individualists who fled the tyranny of the Church of England. They were labelled Puritans – let’s call them separatists – who endured relentless persecution. They believed that the Church of England needed to be ‘purified’ of the excesses of the Catholic Church. They fled to Holland. Then, after ten years, they realised their way of life would lead to financial ruin if the winds of political change continued, so they hired two ships to take them to America. One of these ships was the famous Mayflower.
America’s East Coast was home to many bands of religious immigrants fleeing the European religious programs of the day. The Pilgrims set up camp in Plymouth. In the first two years, they flirted with extinction; disease and starvation decimated half of their group. The following year, thanks to the help and training of the indigenous people of America, they prospered through hard work. That autumn their crops were bountiful. With the addition of five deer hunted and killed by the Indians, they had a feast to celebrate their survival and a new store of food that would carry them through the winter. It’s become our annual Thanksgiving reminder.
As Ishaan Tharoor notes:
“Neaarly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims — men and women who want nothing more than the chance for a safer, better future for themselves and their families,” said Obama in 2015. “What makes America America is that we offer that chance. We turn Lady Liberty’s light to the world, and widen our circle of concern to say that all God’s children are worthy of our compassion and care. That’s part of what makes this the greatest country on Earth.”
Today’s America is much different. Trump bellows a nationalistic narrative that belittles the immigrants of his country. He is attempting to stem the flow of refugees to America with disastrous results.
The Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving reminders for independent filmmakers
Firstly, they fled the corporate religious structures of their day. Isn’t this similar to the way independent filmmakers struggle with the corporate finance and distribution models of the studio system and with government funding programmes? Do not today’s filmmakers rebel against the corporate rules as our Pilgrim forepersons did?
Secondly, the Pilgrim’s agricultural success came from their ability to collaborate and to integrate with the local people. In the case of the Pilgrims, this benefitted them for sure. It proved an unmitigated disaster for the indigenous people of America as we well know. But as filmmakers we need to collaborate. To share. To help each other. To watch each other’s backs. And to fight for what we believe is true and just, regardless of the story type or medium. The early Pilgrims, just like us independent filmmakers, were multiculturalists.
Thirdly, and an important Thanksgiving reminder – the Pilgrims had investors. A little known fact is that their journey to America was financed by investors that expected a return. In their case, the investors wanted goods from the New World. Isn’t this a familiar ring for an independent filmmaker facing a group of investors wondering when they are going to be repaid?
Fourthly, the Pilgrims embraced disruption. Their original protests in Britain and their subsequent messages challenged the existing structures. Like all early disruptors, they were persecuted. But disrupt they did, much like independent filmmakers who revolt against the existing film financing structure with, for example, crowd-funding, or how they challenge the century-old distribution models with self-distribution.
Fifthly, the Pilgrims had to adapt their survival to new techniques demanded by the brave New World they entered, much like how independent filmmakers adapt the techniques of visual story telling with new mediums like virtual reality.
In conclusion, I believe we live in deeply troubled times. It is strange to me that at this important juncture in our history, we can learn from the success and failures of the Pilgrims. Two important trends threaten our very being; one is the ecological damage we are wrecking on the planet.
The other is beautifully expressed by Ishaan Tharoor:
Strangely, at a time when the American far right decries the existential threat posed by refugees with supposedly fundamentalist religious convictions, they have no problem aligning with the country’s original migrants.
Can we as independent filmmakers learn from the Pilgrims? Can we use their Thanksgiving reminders? Can we, like them, find the courage to voice our independent visions? Are we strong enough to avoid their mistakes and embrace the people of all nations, religions and cultures? And can we all work together to make better movies and tell compelling stories that will make our world a better place?
I think we can.