Low production costs, allowing filmmakers

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I’ve had conversations with people recently where I felt the need to point out the fact that at any given time in Arkansas there are dozens, if not hundreds of movies in production.

Most are serious, modest projects undertaken by ambitious people who hope to make a film that others will watch and enjoy. Some of them might consider making a career out of it, but most make movies for the same reason people have always made art: to express something they need to express.

A few decades ago, making a movie was an expensive proposition. This is no longer the case – digital tools have made it possible to make professional looking videos with consumer tools. People are shooting movies on smartphones these days.

But just because anyone can make a movie doesn’t make every movie worth it. Some films are poorly crafted and best received by their creators as learning experiences. Others are nice efforts that more or less do what they’re supposed to. Once in a while, I’ll see a locally produced film that demonstrates real talent.

I’m proud of the film community in Arkansas. It’s a support group.

But while we can agree that finishing a film of any quality is a great achievement, perhaps the equivalent of writing a novel or running a marathon, it doesn’t make you all that special. Lots of people make movies. What makes a film worth considering by a general audience is its quality – how engaging, entertaining and informative it is.

That’s why we don’t usually write about movies we haven’t seen in this section and we often refrain from writing about original and locally produced movies we’ve seen if they aren’t of a certain quality.

While our duty is to our readers, not to any film community, there is no point in destroying what is essentially a student film in print. Send me a copy of your movie and I’ll try to give you a private review — even if it’s just my opinion — but I’ll only post something about it if it meets two conditions: it doesn’t isn’t terrible and people have an opportunity to actually watch it. Fair enough?

JT Tarpley’s documentary, “88.3 FM & The Voice of the People,” mentioned in this section last week, is still available on the Internet at 883doc.com, available for free until Thursday. I had seen a rough cut of the film a few years ago and watched the latest iteration last weekend. It’s a cinema verité look at the Little Rock community radio station just before and after Donald Trump’s 2017 presidential inauguration.

Cinéma Vérité – also known as “cinema direct” – is a documentary technique in which the filmmaker turns on a camera and stands aside. The idea is to make the viewer a witness, the proverbial fly on the wall as events unfold.

It sounds easy, a kind of point-and-shoot journalism, but as Tarpley can probably tell you, it’s a really difficult way to tell a cohesive story. You have to piece together, from hours and hours of footage, a cohesive narrative that viewers can piece together on their own. Editing is everything in a piece like this, and the need to make sense must be balanced against the need to provide crucial information.

“88.3 FM” is a successful documentary on many levels, but it mostly works because of its pace and rhythm. Tarpley can make a board meeting digestible (it helps when you have main characters like Wade Rathke — also the subject of the 2018 documentary “The Organizer” — and John Cain).

He has an ear for organically extracting the station’s history from anecdotes; there is no need for talking heads to sit down for a debrief when people are telling stories on air.

And, as DA Pennebaker observed of Bob Dylan while filming the seminal “Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back,” the presence of the camera inevitably turns people into performers, which means the film doesn’t is never quite real; it’s always an impressionistic and subjective take. Slide the camera a few degrees left or right and you get a whole different movie.

Someone else’s movie, maybe.

But “88.3 FM & The Voice of the People” is by Tarpley, and we should be glad it’s here and on the record. (Although he’s threatening it will be gone forever after Thursday, so it’s probably out of his hands now.)

And if you go to the website, know that donations are welcome through Venmo and CashApp. It might be a lot cheaper to make a movie these days, but it’s still not free.

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