Independent filmmaking has been especially prominent in the twenty-first century because it has become the new mainstream. It has largely taken over for Hollywood studios in producing the kinds of realistic dramas and comedies that were long the core of studio fare. (The studios have been squeezed between the popularity of prestige TV and the international profitability of franchise films.) In the twentieth century, the production of independent films was no less varied or artistically accomplished, although many of the best of them went largely unseen. Instead of embodying the mainstream, twentieth-century independent filmmaking formed a crucial alternative to it—a virtual counter-history of cinema. A list of the best of these movies reveals the exclusions and suppressions that many of the prime artistic voices of filmmaking endured in the era of studio hegemony, and not just in the United States.
Many of the greatest filmmakers worked for major studios in Hollywood and around the world, and sometimes even found sufficient artistic freedom there to create enduring masterworks. The backstory of a movie’s production isn’t a mark of its artistic merits. Still, though the art of filmmaking is primarily the art of directing, much of what’s ascribed to direction is a matter of production. Directors’ personalized production methods—their approach to every aspect of filmmaking, from departmental organization to the casting and directing of actors, from the crystallizing of stories with or without scripts to the techniques of cinematography and sound recording—are often at the root of their more comprehensive onscreen originality.
The center of independent production is infrastructure: filmmakers building their own authority regarding time, money, and matériel into the essence and foundation of their artistic authorship, whether out of necessity or desire. Yet the very concept of independent filmmaking has long remained unstable, vague, and ambiguous—and the way that it’s defined in the profession doesn’t necessarily reflect the most significant realities of the business. For instance, today’s independents—perhaps defined as anyone working outside the studios—range from D.I.Y. filmmakers with budgets in the hundreds to nine-figure super-productions, if you count directors who work with Amazon and Netflix. The streaming giants have afforded some major filmmakers major resources and a wide berth of artistic freedom; yet, in the essential matter of filmmakers developing their own structures and methods of production, they—and other large-scale independent producers, such as A24—remain akin to the studios.
A bit of history helps to clarify the idea. For instance, in the high studio era, from the nineteen-twenties through the late forties, studios were vertically integrated—they produced films, distributed films, and owned their own movie theatres. As a result, the definition of independence was, in practice, very wide, embracing such smaller studios as Republic and Producers Releasing Corporation. But, in 1944, a small yet powerful group called the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers—its ranks including Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford—urged the federal government to renew an antitrust suit against the major studios. (For the record, the suit was then revived and the Supreme Court ruled against the studios in 1948, and the resulting changes in the industry helped to foster a mighty outpouring of creative energy in Hollywood during the fifties.)
Even then, the essence of independence was clear: it meant art made under artists’ own aegis. That holds true at all levels of production, whether the ultra-high budgets of the colossally wealthy Chaplin (who’d made a fortune in his first decade in the film business) or the ultra-low ones of student filmmakers. That’s why I’m compiling this list in a minimalist spirit: it’s limited to movies that, as far as I can determine, weren’t made by an entity or a producer in the business of making films—unless it’s director’s own production company and principally produces his or her own work. (The ideal of artist-owned productions was already advocated, in the fifties, by François Truffaut, as a precondition for the revolution in cinematic form that he anticipated.)
This criterion leaves out some of my very favorite films that are widely acclaimed as independents—in particular, ones which were produced by a branch of public television. With few exceptions, I’m not including short films or documentaries, because the production systems and structures for those are different from those of fiction features. And there are numerous countries with vital cinematic traditions that are not represented on this list because they never generated notable independent productions, in some cases owing to government surveillance and repression.
The dominance of the studios has both formed and deformed the American cinema and world cinema. It has also warped the very relationship of filmmakers to the practice of filmmaking—even psychologically. Many filmmakers attempting to take part in the business have found themselves in a grotesque Freudian struggle with Big Cinema Daddy, unable to dissociate their creative energy and their aesthetic drive from a battle with a pseudo-mythological giant. One of the paradoxes of independent filmmaking, even at its most extreme, is that it’s essentially dependent, and not just financially—it relies on a functioning film industry for equipment and services. I’m reminded of Gertrude Stein’s psychological distinction, in “The Making of Americans,” of “the independent dependent having attacking more or less sometime in them” and the “dependent independent who can have sometime resisting in them.” The overt history of cinema is that of attack mode; the alternate history is one of resistance.
If Hollywood is identifiable by its exclusions, independent filmmaking offered the chance for a crucial corrective—a realm for female filmmakers, Black filmmakers, and others who, by dint of their identity or their ideas, had no place in the mainstream. Often, they made great films, which deserve a place in the canon alongside any that achieved far more acclaim at the time. Some of the most famous movies by some of the most famous directors would never have been made had the directors not created their own production companies. These above-ground masterworks, often despised in their time, are closer in spirit and art to some of the student films and quasi-amateur projects on the list than they are to the movie mainstream of their day. This list of sixty-seven reflects the spirit of resistance—artistic, political, economic, and social—that’s at the very heart of the movies, classic and modern.
In chronological order:
1920, directed by Oscar Micheaux
Hollywood established its commercial preëminence by way of D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a film so racist and so stuffed with demagogic lies that it reinvigorated the K.K.K. When the Black writer Oscar Micheaux formed a company to make movies on his own, he began with this candid and confrontational depiction of the Klan’s brutality, its members’ efforts to steal the resources of Black people, and the moral right to physical resistance.
1921, Lois Weber