Why Now We Must Make Work That Truly Matters

The election and his new film, Burn Country, prompt Ian Olds to grapple with how important art is now, and what is its place in the world.

“Art is like an obscure but essential organ in the human body – it seems redundant or useless until it is removed and the body dies.”

I can’t remember whether this quote came to me casually from a friend a few weeks ago or from a dream. All the friends I’ve asked tell me it wasn’t them and I rarely remember my dreams. The few dreams I do remember tend to be epics involving the sea (in one of my favorites, a great white shark leaps out of the water onto the beach and transforms into a massive tadpole – after which an insane old man with a knee-length beard runs from the woods chasing a cow through the shallow surf, like a cheetah pursuing an antelope in a nature film). So the dream angle seems unlikely.

Regardless, the idea is not mine, but came to me at a moment when I was asking myself a very direct question: what is the point of what I do as a filmmaker? There are times in this dark post-election moment when thinking about art and art-making feels particularly self-indulgent and futile. I often ponder this question after finishing a film, and the election has put my reflection in even starker contrast to real-world suffering. A bunch of liberals drinking wine, talking about art and warming their hands by the fire while Rome burns is an image of our perverse, decaying empire that brings me no joy. The obvious answer to my question is to stop thinking about art and get off my ass to get involved in some form of meaningful action. And yet I can’t stop thinking about art, so I’ll have to figure out a way to do both …

The idea of art as an essential organ feels almost too close to cliché, but the existential component of the quote is what activates me. What could possibly be so important about art-making that its absence is a threat to our collective body? Reading grant applications and artist statements, you would think that every film was a life-altering transformation of the world. But the truth is that most of our work sucks most of the time and our collective, uncritical embrace of “storytelling” is not helping us.

Are we, as filmmakers, really comfortable with an uncritical embrace of language co-opted by the market and turned into corporate speak? A language that gives us “creatives” and “branded content” and co-opts narrative as a marketing device. “Storytelling” and “story” have become code for a kind of palatable package (for ideas, products and otherwise complex human experience) that resists complexity, contradiction, depth, silence and moral ambiguity in favor of a very specific form of coherence. It’s something that’s comfortable for audiences and thus comfortable for the filmmakers who serve them, which only reinforces the ill-conceived notion that being a “storyteller” is somehow enough.

But I don’t want to spend time complaining about the forces of mediocrity, as I’m much more interested in trying to understand how, in this dark moment, filmmaking can be truly essential. How can it be needed by the human body on a visceral, existential level?

Clearly there is tremendous value in work that actively confronts power. That’s one way work feels genuinely essential to me. But of course it’s not the only way, and even as I was in Iraq and Afghanistan making documentaries about our nation’s misguided adventures abroad, part of me knew I needed to return to narrative filmmaking. I have trouble sharply articulating this need, although it goes well beyond the obvious desire to leave war zones behind. It has something to do with the question of how the intimate can rise to the level of the essential. It has something to do with wanting to wade directly into the contradictions of storytelling – knowing on the one hand that telling a story is simply not enough and on the other that great work can heighten our feeling of being alive.

When my writing partner Paul Felten said to me several years ago, “The best work sensitizes us to the world,” I knew exactly what he meant. It’s not that it connects us to our emotional lives, it’s that it can actually expand our very ability to feel and know and intuit the world – to recognize suffering, to read the dynamic undercurrents of our shared humanity, to decode power.

It’s an invaluable form of resistance to the familiar tendency to shut down and harden ourselves against the world – and thus undeniably essential – but is it enough? I’m pretty sure that it’s not. Try telling someone confronting real-world racism, misogyny or crippling financial strain that the key is to be more sensitive to the world and there is a solid chance they’ll tell you to go fuck yourself.

Essential, but not enough.

These contradictions can paralyze any sane artist. There is no Archimedean point from which to speak and, thankfully, no politically safe space from which to work. Any artist who is comfortable with how they engage in the world is either drinking their own Kool-Aid or simply not paying attention.

And yet, amidst these impenetrable contradictions, we make work. In fact, it’s possible that we are driven to pursue great work not in spite of these contradictions, but because of them. The heat is in the ruptures and intuitively we know there’s something alive in the fire.

Against all odds, rare work is still being made that transcends the medium. It’s worth mentioning two specific films not only to celebrate the filmmakers but because these films work in superbly different ways.

Moonlight is a classic narrative film, but one that takes ownership of its three acts with poetic mastery. Though much has been written about the fact that it allows us access to a character unlike any other we’ve seen on screen, it’s the film’s subtle accumulation of meaning, its unaffected poetry and the fact that it is both incredibly specific and inconceivably vast, that allows it to transcend the medium.

Cameraperson may not be interested in narrative as such, but it is anchored in an expressive architecture of meaning that allows the deep humanity of the film to accumulate power over time. Kirsten Johnson’s documentary is not only a record of a way of seeing (a visceral document of a specific human sensibility), it is also a profoundly moving invitation to pay attention to the world.

For me, films like these that speak directly to the nervous system are not just reminders that I am alive, they become calls to action. Make better work. Engage more directly in the world. Keep on the hunt for work that transcends the medium. Stay open. Confront power. Pay attention. Because everything is not OK.

Ian Olds is a director of both narrative and documentary work. Olds’ Burn Country, which world-premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and was awarded the festival’s Best Actor prize for lead Dominic Rains, opens December 9, 2016. Olds’ previous directing credits include the Independent Spirit Award-winning Iraq war doc Occupation: Dreamland; the Emmy-nominated Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi; and the doc/fiction hybrid Francophrenia, with James Franco. Olds was named one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2009.