Filmmakers on Film: Debra Granik

In order for us as humans to advance, we need to look to the past. This is something that we as a people have had trouble with, and it is astonishing how few film students have any knowledge of what came before, despite having a limitless amount of films at their fingertips. Thus, I reached out to notable industry members and asked them to recommend one film to film students and young filmmakers and explain their choice.

Debra Granik is a filmmaker best known for LEAVE NO TRACE, DOWN TO THE BONE, and WINTER'S BONE. The latter film earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as the Grand Jury Prize and Screenwriting Award at Sundance, and DOWN TO THE BONE earned her a Directing Award at the Sundance.

The following are her recommendations:

Debra Granik: I am recommending films from a part of American film history, mainstream film history, that I didn't know about growing up. I didn't know we had gone through big periods of social realism in the United States even in quite popular films, films that had stars in them, films that were coming out of the West Coast Hollywood system. It's mattered a lot in terms of retrieving such a connection and positive heritage here in the United States.

I've often booked European films, European social realism for my inspiration and for my understanding. 'Oh it was in Europe that they did these films, it was in Europe where these issues were meaningful,' and it was here too, and I think that's really beautiful, important. It's been helping in these rough times sure up my identity as an American. That's why I would to talk about them, and that's why I'd love generations coming up to know about them. 

Joshua Handler: Which films do you feel epitomize this period or have been an influence on you or would you recommend to aspiring filmmakers or film students?

DG: I'm thinking of a grouping of three films: one is called I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, which is a 1932 film, and it deal with incarceration. It deals with punishment and how we have chosen to administer it in the United States, and though this is a fiction film, there are some details in that film that were extremely relevant and important to show and are important today because somehow I thought in recent years, since I've been working in this field, I've been trying to understand how we got to mass incarceration in the United States. I was thinking, 'Oh the last 25 years,' but there's actually a problem with how we've incarcerated for basically our whole history, but to be specific, certain decades it would peak, certain eras it would peak.

This is a 1932 film, and it's absolutely got connectivity to now, and it reminded me of a couple of films I loved, specifically a very famous prison film from France by Jean Becker called LE TROU (THE HOLE) which has a lot of details to discuss, physical detail, tons of physical details onscreen: what the actual chain gang labor enforcement was, how they lived in their bunks and their dorms, what the food was like. It may not all be accurate, but yet the filmmakers were going to great lengths on how to depict this physicality onscreen. And whereas the films about prison that I grew up with kind of hyper-sensationalized the violence - shanking and male-against-male violence inside prison and maybe sadistic treatment by guards - this film has plenty of sadistic treatment by correction officers - but the fact is, it actually deals with cycles of criminality, how poverty informs criminality.

It's crucial to know that American cinema wasn't only this cinema of fantasy or erasure. It went into this huge phase, really long-lasting now, where we have taught Americans that you might not need to care about anything because zombies don't have real-life concerns. We have inoculated, we have injected a whole generation with 15 years of zombie entertainment. Streaming was nonstop zombie content, long-running television series, so there was actually a time where there was other content besides zombies or children killing other children in long-running franchised material, and then there was also a time when we wondered about how to solve problems here on planet Earth without superpowers. The dream is that young people coming up right now would look back in this arsenal, because it's a communal national arsenal, it's a repository, it's a place to go to understand how we got here, but also there was a time when we were a lot more sentient and a lot more aware of issues that cropped up in everyday life. That's '32, CHAIN GANG.

HEROES FOR SALE, 1933 - we're looking at the Depression era where even though I think there was going to be some musicals to try to alleviate the bummer of the Depression, there were also I guess films that were really willing to look at, again, real issues. This was post-traumatic stress, this is about a dependency on pain medicine, which is again an issue that is very relevant, and it was about class, about really raw edges of social class. I just was so impressed the film would dare to look, dare to call this out. I guess it's the dare of it all, dare to not be polite about stuff that needs to be discussed. 

Certain social issues you can't be polite, and that's one of the American weirdnesses, maybe polite is easier to swallow. It's like trying to make some things pulverized for easier consumption I guess. 

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES comes right after in this kind of triple-whammy package of American honesty and American courage to look at class and the aftermath of war. We think to ourselves [after recent wars], 'Oh what happened? People don't feel good after [war], some people that served feel that part of the bargain isn't being held up. They're coming back to a very weakened economy, they don't feel well psychologically, what happened?' Well, we have these other films that talk about this exact same cycle, so again, preventing amnesia. That was quite a bit later.

So the two films were in the '30s, and this was 1946, but again the honesty was in there. It's a different war. HEROES was World War I, this is World War II aftermath. It's dealing with job scarcity, it's dealing with a set of issues that affects a human being in the United States attempting to find a way for a stable and decent life, and if that isn't relevant to today, I don't know what is. I think you almost get power and affection for the Americans that came before us that were looking at these things, so in some ways, to me, it's a courageous way to be patriotic - to look at when your country was asking really good questions.

A lot of us curdle at this idea of a slogan that became kind of a punishment to us right now: 'Make America Great Again.' And a lot of people that love films would say, 'Help America Think Again,' and these films do that, so that's why I'm so impassioned. I don't want to sound like a brow-beater and like an 'eat your spinach' kind of person but it's a passionate feeling I'm having.