Static is a film I created in 2014, but I have recently re-developed the work into an installation where the film will be screened on a CRT TV.Read More
I have wanted to write a blog post about the topic of balance in life for the last year. Finding balance has been an important topic for me as I have previously found myself caught in a spiral of procrastination due to my tendencies towards perfectionism, and admittedly still occasionally do.
To me, balance means finding ways to manage all the important categories of your life without plunging into one section so deeply that you leave the others high and dry. As an artist, this can be especially challenging as expectations are set very high in the ever narrowing field of professional artists, and because an artist’s work is so often intertwined with their personal self worth.
”I don’t want balance, I want brilliance!”
It can be tempting as an artist to disregard your physical and mental health, to isolate yourself from family and friends, or to ignore your personal responsibilities all in the “name of your art”. We see this caricature of the genius artist in many forms of representations. We often idolize these characters for their singular focus and extreme dedication to their craft. I think about the cult status of film directors such as Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick, and how their extreme nature was praised as genius and the key to their artistic craftsmanship. I absolutely hate this notion, as it is harmful to the artist and those surrounding them. Welles’ obsessive nature with his filmmaking basically killed him, and Kubrick was notoriously abusive to his actors, pushing them to extremes. I also would note that many of these so called genius artists, especially in filmmaking, are men, and that their often dangerous behaviour towards others is disregarded as unimportant for the sake of making their art. I think most good art about artists tries to subvert this idea in someway, either by problematizing these dangerous actions or the viewer’s ideation of such artists.
We have seen a variety of filmmakers attempting to examine the extreme pressures that can be put on artists, both by others and themselves, such as in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014). Additionally, there have been documentaries that call to question the ethics of artistic extremity, such as Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), which is about the notoriously outrageous director Werner Herzog and the questionable actions he undertakes in order to complete his epic film Fitzcarraldo.
Do we Value Artists?
I personally struggle with this praising of singular focused artists who will do anything for their art. I recently collaborated with an artist who claimed that our work is different from other forms of work, comparing it to activists’ work, and that we need to dedicate all of ourselves to our art. I deeply disagree with this idea, both for artists and activists. I think they were coming from a place of highly valuing both forms of work, but this sentiment actually devalues our output. This idea says that artists should put everything, literally everything, into their art, regardless of their health, wellbeing or abilities. This undermines our work by monetarily devaluing us, as the insane amount of time, effort and skill is almost always underpaid or not paid at all.
Secondly, this attitude enforces the idea that work related to art isn’t measurable in the same way other work is. As in, artmaking isn’t work per se, but something we are “called to do,” something we would do even without pay, without concern for ourselves, because the work is so important. I disagree with this idea deeply. Though of course I believe art making is extremely important for society, I think that to treat our work differently from other forms hurts artists and thus hurts the art.
Mental Health and Artistic Balance
Another important point against the idea of basically killing yourself for your art is that this isn’t possible for so many types of people. The standards of living off next to nothing, putting in 12+ hour days constantly, or not allowing yourself to have pleasures in life — these attitudes hurts almost all types of humans, but especially marginalized people. I personally can speak to how harmful this attitude can be for someone with chronic physical and mental struggles, and how these attitudes can hurt extra as a woman.
A great book that touches on these ideas is Ellen Forney’s graphic novel Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir. In this autobiography, Forney reveals how she felt when she discovered her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She explains: “even as the weight of this news sank in, the sense of heaviness was alleviated by a back-handed sense of cred.” She depicts herself holding up a “Club van Gogh” card that states, “The true artist is a crazy artist.”
I read this book for the first time when I was around 18 years old. It really spoke to me as an aspiring artist who was yet to discover her own diagnosis of major depressive disorder. The idea that my mental illness was inherently connected to my ability to produce good art was a toxic idea that I needed to see reflected back from another artist. In Forney’s case, she associated her manic episodes with bursts of creativity and dreamt of preparing for her depressive phases with preplanned ideas that just needed completion. This plan, unsurprisingly, did not work. Throughout the book, as she discovers more about herself, how she views artists, and her own mental health, she comes to realize that bipolar disorder is not the source of her creativity, but instead something that actually made it a lot harder for her to work. She even so blatantly states before this realization, “I don’t want balance, I want brilliance!”
Reading books like Marbles, or watching films like Black Swan, Whiplash, or Burden of Dreams, were helpful in evaluating my own personal expectations of myself and my art. I don’t want to push myself to extremes to create art, and I refuse to tolerate anyone that expects that of me. I value my art, and thus must value myself. I deserve to have a stable and balanced life. All artists deserve this balance.
I will finish this post with a lovely quote from the painter Jackson Pollock. Somehow, I feel his attitude towards his work mirrors what I hope to enact myself":
”Sometimes I lose a painting. But I have no fear of changes, of destroying the image, because a painting has a life of its own. I try to let it live.” — Jackson Pollock
Coated with imagery of the local Haitian practices of Vodou and Kanaval, this reflexive narrative was created through direct collaboration between Casanova and his film students from the Ciné Institute of Jacme. The film simultaneously questions the ethics of its ethnographic filmmaking, while also exploring the aftermath of colonialism in Haiti.Read More
I am a huge supporter of volunteer work. I volunteered weekly at The Cinematheque for three years while in film school. I have and continue to volunteer on friend’s film sets, donating my time and expertise. And I continue to search for new volunteer opportunities to give back to communities I support.
However, I am also a strong advocate for fair working conditions and just wages.
The problem with filmmaking culture here in Vancouver (and I suspect worldwide) is that often the standard is to take advantage of the eager and naive, expect 12+ hour days, and be exclusive to workers with different abilities. I have been on countless sets where often young folks, who are volunteering on one of their first film sets, are taught that the standard is no pay, extremely long days, and a work culture that can often be unwelcoming.
For example, I volunteered on a old colleague’s film set last year as an background actor. They put out a call for young people who could pass as high school students. I had the day free, and respected the colleague, so I signed up for the set. It was a decently large set for a Vancouver-style independent film, and had a large crew + cast. Overall, the set was fine -- decent crafty and friendly crew, but there was a large problem with the lack of respect for the background actors. Lunch breaks were cut short, communication and direction were lacking, and extra long hours were expected after the estimated end time.
Now, if you work or volunteer on film sets, you have probably experienced something similar. You have had your rushed lunches, you have worked with difficult people, and you definitely have stayed late on set. The element that really ircked me about this set was that, aside from myself, almost all the background actors were literal highschool students. They were children. They didn’t know they could say no to staying late, or stand up against anything else that wasn’t okay on that set. They were learning that this is the norm on film sets -- that unfair working conditions is the standards and that you shouldn’t say anything against it.
I tried my best to stand up for these kids, but ultimately it was me against a crew that was just trying to make their day. I have so many worse horror stories, but this particular story really exemplifies the norms of film set culture.
It’s wrong to manipulate volunteers, especially child volunteers. It’s wrong to expect people to be on their feet, often working quickly, mentally pushing themselves for 12 - 15 hours a day. It’s wrong to take advantage of film crews and artists who are passionate about the craft and work them to the bone as volunteers.
Artists and others working on film sets deserve fair pay. As I mentioned above, I am a huge advocate for volunteer work. However, there is a big difference between volunteer work and paid work. When someone volunteers their time and skills, they should be treated not just fairly, but be shown extra gratitude. They are working for free after all!
When I volunteered at The Cinematheque, the management ensured we all felt appreciated. There was annual volunteer parties, free perks, encouraging management and more. Sadly, these sorts of standards are often not upheld on certain film sets.
On my friend’s sets, the vibe is consciously very different from the problematic sets we have all volunteered on before. We don’t kill ourselves with extra long hours. We respect each other on set. And we volunteer because we truly care about the project and artists behind the film.
A piece of advice to new filmmakers looking to gain experience on sets:
Know you can always say no, or walk away. Never risk your safety for anything.
You are VOLUNTEERING. You are not obligated to do anything. If someone tries to cut your lunch short, don’t be afraid to let them know you are not okay with that.
Make sure it is clear whether you are volunteering or working. If it is a working gig, then ensure you are being paid at least minimum wage (in B.C. currently $12.65, set to rise annually on June 1st).
In general, I would advise against volunteering on sets you don’t know much about. You shouldn’t waste your time on projects or people you don’t actually care about.