The Berkshire International Film Festival is celebrating its 15th birthday this year, and to do that, we’d like to honor some of our new filmmakers. For our Filmmaker Four article series, we sent all our BIFF first-timers the same set of four questions—the answers, of course, are delightfully different.
Joe Brown’s work focuses on the natural world and issues of social justice. From fracking to the abuse of wildlife to urban renewal and socioeconomics, Brown’s passion for the natural world and how humans build their societies within it shine through in his documentaries. He has produced films for clients like Project Coyote and the National Waterkeeper Alliance, and he’s actively involved in the Colorado Environmental Film Festival and serves as the Vice President of the University Film & Video Association. Operation Wolf Patrol, Brown’s first BIFF film, is distributed by Journeyman Pictures.
When not filmmaking for a cause, Brown teaches film at the University of Denver.
What was your first experience on a film set?
I entered film as an activist doing environmental documentary. So, that was basically me, a friend, and a camera out in the mountains documenting what was going on with natural gas drilling (kind of like Gasland, but pre-Gasland, and with a much smaller budget). Since that time I’ve worked on many sets, but I still do prefer small crews and the challenge of working as a “one-person-band.”
What was the first film you directed/wrote?
The first film I directed is called, National Sacrifice Zone: Colorado and the Cost of Energy Independence. It’s a feature documentary about fossil fuel development in western Colorado in the mid 2000s. The film is pretty bad technically (I didn’t know what I was doing), but I do hold that it tackled a complex issue in a pretty sophisticated way. I made the film as an activist interested in critiquing the absurdity of US oil and gas subsidies during a time when we needed to be moving away from fossil fuels. Thinking back on the film, and the energy policy issues it focused on, I can’t help but think that we’re still not far enough along in this transition. I think there’s a 60-minute version of the film available on YouTube, but there’s also an 80-minute version out there somewhere. It’s funny, because I’ve heard some people talk about the distinction between, “the first film they made,” and the, “first film they publicly admit to making.” I’m sure I would cringe if I watched National Sacrifice Zone today, but I do admit to making it. I think it’s important for aspiring documentarians to know that it takes a long time to develop your skills. Your first film may not be that good, but if it has heart, that says a lot.
Who is your favorite filmmaker?
This is a super hard question to answer. I’m sure I can’t name just one…
I’m a pretty big fan of the films of Adam Curtis. He makes collage/found-footage-type films that are highly political. I don’t always agree with his viewpoint, but I like his approach. And the titles of his films have some kind of power over me! They really draw me in. I mean, how could you not be curious about films with titles like, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace?
Speaking of fun titles, Les Blank’s films are also amongst my favorites (why am I so into titles? Did I just admit that I’m like the guy who buys wine based on the cool-looking label?). I love his docs, God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, and The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins. When you watch Blank’s films you get the sense that you’re watching a bit of a filmic time capsule (if I may call them that); he documented people, places, and traditions that seem to have faded away. And he didn’t rely on typical documentary conventions—I guess I’d call his films observational ethnography.
I also admit to being a pretty big Werner Herzog fan.
I also appreciate any fiction filmmaker who uses the form to tackle social issues. John Sayles, Michael Winterbottom, and Spike Lee all stand out here.
And oh, I want to give a shout out to whoever made that TV series Trailer Park Boys! That crew was pure genius! Ha! And yes, I’m completely serious about this (o.k., I looked it up, the director is Mike Clattenburg. Gotta give credit where credit is due!).
What are you working on that no one knows about?
Well, I just finished and released my feature film, Operation Wolf Patrol, and I’m now engaged in the production of some shorter form work. I’ve got two 30-minute films in production on environmental issues. One focuses on the issue of, “tree inequity,” or the idea that some neighborhoods have more trees, and therefore more shade, than others. Obviously, this is becoming a huge problem as the world warms since those less-treed places will feel global warming more acutely (and the less-treed places are typically the less affluent places). The other short I’m working on focuses on the relationship children have to wild animals, both in their minds/imagination and in reality. I’ve also got some pet projects going on that focus on the changing nature of the American West and the boom in population here in Denver, where I live.