Agnes Varnum is a well-known blogger in the documentary filmmaking community, and she wears many hats at once. In addition to working in publicity for First Run/Icarus Films, she also does documentary programming for several film festivals and writes a regular column for Indiewire. I caught up with the multi-talented Ms. Varnum at this year’s Hot Docs.
James McNally: Tell me about how and why you decided to start your blog.
Agnes Varnum: After SXSW last year, it became clear to me how emerging web technologies, in shorthand, Web 2.0, was bringing people together. Not so much in the film world but definitely in the interactive community. I wanted to see if it would work in my world — could I raise my own profile? Find or create community? Practice my writing skills. It’s been much more successful and enriching than I had imagined.
JM: In light of the fact that the US is embroiled in a war, and that the level of political discourse in the country seems to be at an all-time low, what are some of the themes you’re finding in the documentaries you’re watching? Do you think documentarians have a responsbility to try to engage people in political reflection? And if so, do you see any positive result of any particular films?
AV: This seems to be the age-old question of “Do docs make a difference?”, and I won’t presume to have an answer beyond my own experience. The films I watch, I think, inform me, sensitize me, move me emotionally, make me think and engage others. I’m sure that I’m a better citizen and person than if I never got into this line of work, but no one is measuring how much I’ve changed as a result of the films I’ve watched. One of the things that keeps me in this business is being around like-minded people, and being present when viewer’s minds are opened. All we can do is keep on our paths and hope that the numbers of people willing to change their own lives for the betterment of others will keep growing.
The current state of US foreign policy seems to be a prevalent theme, and is being addressed in a number of “soldier’s experience” films — Operation Homecoming, The War Tapes, and there are several in the Tribeca programme.
JM: You do marketing and publicity for First Run/Icarus Films as well as write columns for a few outlets and program for film festivals. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the work you’re involved with right now? Anything interesting coming up that you’d like to talk about?
AV: Well, you’ve nailed my bio in a nutshell. I also do some narrative feature development. One project that I worked on may go into production this year, so I’m crossing my fingers, but I can’t say much more than that about it.
JM: How do you feel the internet and blogs in particular have helped independent and documentary filmmakers?
AV: For the people who take advantage of the possibilities, still very few in number, I think it can open up whole new doors to getting your work seen and bought. 51 Birch Street is a great example — Doug [Block] did well on the fest circuit but he parlayed that and his online efforts into a very successful theatrical run for his film. Lance Weiler (Head Trauma) is also a master in self-distribution. He did all his own bookings, but it was his ability to mobilize people out to the theatres that made it work. Four-Eyed Monsters is an early example of this as well.
Blogs are a filter. Those of us doing it write about what we see, enjoy, hate, and our readers may make choices depending on that. I do think that blogs tend to be a niche filter — why read my review if you can read [New York Times film critic] Manohla Dargis? I try to not waste my time on material that is covered elsewhere, but I see the trend that as a blog becomes more popular, they also tend to go more mainstream. It’s still evolving.
JM: What percentage of your time does your blog take up and does it match the percentage of your income you derive from it?
AV: I put in much more time than I get paid for directly. I have not been successful in monetizing my blog, but that is a choice. If you want to make money blogging, don’t write about niche topics. The people raking in the cash are writing about blogging and technology (take a look at Technorati’s Top 100). But, the work has other dividends for me that are more important.
JM: After Hot Docs, of course, what do you consider the best documentary film festivals in the world?
AV: This question comes up a lot and “best” is totally subjective. It always depends on what you need from it and whether the fest meets your needs, and I have not been to all the festivals. But, of the fests I’ve been to, IDFA is an amazing experience; SILVERDOCS, Hot Docs and SXSW (not only docs, but truly inspiring on so many levels) are right up there.
JM: Are there any undiscovered gems at this festival that you’d like to let our readers know about?
AV: Can’t answer this until I’ve discovered them! I’m really looking forward to seeing My Second Life though!