My brief indie film career

The amateur Independent Film scene of the 1970s

During my university days I had an idea: to become a film producer and director. The desire arose for two reasons: one, everyone was doing it, people were making “indie films” left right and centre, everyone was talking about them. Secondly, a young film expert, Jay Tuck, was holding courses on the production of independent movies. Jay was an American who lived in Germany — and still does. Here’s an interesting lecture by him on the dangers of Artificial Intelligence.

Indie stands for independent movie and is a low budget, usually short film made and distributed outside the normal studios. Indies have a different style and content: they are “artistic.” They carry a message.

I attended one of Jay’s courses, and soon, with a group of friends and fellow students, embarked on an indie project. From Jay we got a 16mm camera, and designed a script. The film was to be called “Angst”, which is the German (and now also English) word for “fear”.

And then we started filming: a young man, actually one of our team, is walking down a street, his face grisly and threatening — the unshaven Jonas could do that very nicely. Inserted in the walking sequence were shots of an attractive young girl in an apartment, being attacked by rats, struggling to get them off her chest and neck. Julie, who was the girl-friend of Jonas, played this role, and the rats were in reality dark-felled hamsters, which she genuinely owned.

Well, in the end, after pan and zoom scenes of the walking and struggling, Jonas at last arrives at Julie’s place, and finds her sitting on the floor, sweating. No “rats” anywhere. His face is now kind and loving, and he takes her into his arms and says: “What’s the matter, dearest?” Fade away of the two tenderly hugging. The message: here’s a loving couple, but in her heart she has great fear and resentment (angst).

Now, during our lessons with Jay we had not remembered one thing correctly: the light meter, a hand-held device that told you what aperture to use (those days everything was manual) had to be pointed at the subject or at the scene you are filming. We pointed it towards the camera. And at the lights we were using. The result: when we got the developed film back everything was hopelessly underexposed. No way we could use it to make a proper film.

So I inherited a worthless roll of 16 mm film. I had no idea what to do with it. Then one day I attended an indie film get-together, where they showed a number of short amateur productions, discussing them deeply and seriously. On the spur of the moment I handed the projectionist my 16 mm roll, and he played it for the group. I explained the intention of “Angst,” — you always talk when an indie is running — and after the film was over the audience clapped, vigorously. Mind you the film roll was totally uncut — raw footage, including multiple takes of the same scene. Everything hideously underexposed. But the people at the party said they loved the repetitions and the “dark style” of the narrative, and the way that emphasized the message.

That was when I gave up my ambitions and left the amateur indie scene. I realised that the main point is to present something you could talk about. The final product was irrelevant, you just had to be able to discuss it profoundly. But I do not regret the experience. I did learn a lot from the courses Jay held, and a few years later went on to take my first job: documentary film writer for German TV. How that transpired is described in this article.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.