An Interview with Films for Action
By Amber Brejcha Fraley. Wed, Jul 4, 2007
Matt Topiklar and Tim Hjersted are the main force behind Films for Action, a local grassroots organization that shows informative films to the public at Liberty Hall for a low admittance fee. Films for Action also makes their films available to the public via public access channel 99 on the Sunflower Cablevision network. Toplikar and Hjersted are also attempting to introduce a Peak Oil Resolution to the Lawrence city commission.
Both in their 20s, their modesty, hard work and knowledge of world and U.S. current events is impressive, to say the least. Hjersted and Topiklar spend about 30 hours a week on their activism, researching various environmental and social issues via newspapers, books, the Internet and films. They screen several documentaries per month, deciding which would be best to share with the public via Films for Action. With the help of some friends, they do all of their own promotion of the screenings via flyers, email and the Internet.
I sat down with them recently at the Java Break to talk about Films for Action, the flaws of U.S. media and the peak oil issue.
How did the idea for Films for Action come about?
Matt: I think we were at a friend’s house talking about it. We talked about movies that we’d seen and we got into a conversation about Noam Chomsky. He’s been known to say that the reason people are uninformed isn’t the fault of the public. It’s the fault of the people who know the information and don’t get it out to people.
Tim: Yeah, and we decided we should do a screening of a film. About a year ago I was reading extensively… lots of non fiction books, and it was hard to get my friends interested in a book. It was much easier to hand people a film. It’s much more accessible. From my perspective it was a way to get information out to people that was accessible.
When you screened your first film last year, “Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price,” were you officially Films for Action at that time?
Matt: It was basically same people with the same ideas; we just didn’t have a name for it yet. At least not when we were promoting the film… We might have had the name by the time we screened the movie.
Tim: I guess we chose the Wal-Mart film first because it was a current issue. The completion of a second Wal-Mart wasn’t a sure thing, but it was being presented that way in the local media. We thought people should know that there were more processes to go through and balance out the debate.
Matt: Pretty much everybody we talked to assumed it was a done issue and that there was nothing we could do about it. Obviously there was a break in communication, because in talking with city commissioners they said that wasn’t true at all. We went down to city hall and got a copy of the lawsuit and in sifting through it, it was clear that there was still a chance for them (the City Commission) to deny it and they ended up denying it.
Tim: That leads into the general idea that so many of these issues don’t get reported on, or both sides aren’t reported on, or there’s more of the story that people aren’t informed of and that has become a systemic problem with the media. What with all the corporate consolidation and profit motives of media companies, they often face a conflict of interest in reporting information. We want to get information out to people so that they can have the full breadth of information so that they can decide things for themselves.
Matt, part of the idea of creating Films for Action had to come out of you working for Liberty Hall, right?
Matt: I’d thrown events there before so I new how to do it and new the people to talk to and that made it easy. That made it more comfortable. I knew how much it would cost and what kind of promotion we’d need to do to make a show work at Liberty Hall.
How many films has Films for Action sponsored or cosponsored at Liberty Hall now?
Tim: Five now, I think. Yeah. Two last year and three this year. “Wal-Mart, High Cost of Low Price…”
Matt: Then “Loose Change 2nd Edition”…
Was that the 9-11 movie?
Matt and Tim: Yeah.
Tim: Then “Weapons of Mass Deception,” “The End of Suburbia” and “The Future of Food.”
What makes a film a Films for Action film
Tim: (laughing) That’s a good question.
Matt: Well, it has to be an interesting topic that doesn’t necessarily get covered as much in the media as we think it should be covered. There’s also certain technical requirements we try to adhere to.
Tim: Says the film student.
Matt: It needs to be at least technically competent so that it’s going to present a topic in an engaging and informative way.
Tim: Informative and hopefully empowering. Something that inspires people to want to take action. After each film screening we hand out flyers that address specifically how people can take action on the issues the film presented.
Matt: A lot of these issues are kind of depressing in a way or leave a cynical tone in you, and we want people to know that there’s something they can do if an issue is important to them.
Tim: In watching over 60 documentaries I’ve found that these things can weigh pretty heavily on you, but now that we’re trying to take action in a positive way, it’s empowering to know we can make a difference.
Matt: And it’s empowering to share that information with so many other people, too.
Tim: Yeah, when 300 other people know about the same thing you do, you really feel like you can do something. Several people after the “Future of Food” screening really wanted to know what they could do to take action. We felt it was our responsibility to show people how they could support local farms and eat organically and create a local farm economy. One of the worst things about the media right now is not so much about the problems that they’re covering, but the solutions that they’re not covering.
Matt: It’s like what Al Gore talked about in “Inconvenient Truth” we’ve gone from a state of dismissal, to acceptance, to saying there’s no solution to that: That problem is way too big for anyone to solve, so we might as well forget about it. Our generation in particular, I think, can get very cynical about positive change. It can be so discouraging when you hear so many people who agree with you on an issue, but they think they can’t do anything about it.
Tim: Yeah, I think if the media is America’s No. 1 problem, I think apathy would be a close second.
Do you think it’s necessary to remain a nonprofit to continuing providing information the way you are?
Tim: I think so.
Matt: I don’t know…That’s kind of the way it would make more sense to me to do it. We definitely didn’t get into this to make any money (both laughing). We’ve definitely lost more money than we’ve gained.
Tim: Most of the films have done really well, though.
Have you ever charged more than $2 admission to a film?
Tim and Matt: No.
Matt: If you keep it cheap for people… Lawrence is not a very rich town… That helps out everybody.
Tim: I’d certainly love to be able to make Films for Action a full-time job or try to figure out a way to sustain one or two full-time salaries. That would be great. Matt’s going to be going away in August, so I’m going to be working on this myself.
Where are you going?
Matt: I’m going to take a six-month vacation but then I’m going to end up in Austin. We’ve talked about trying to get a coordination of cities… We have friends in Kansas City, I’ll be in Austin and Tim will be in Lawrence so we’ve talked about trying to do simultaneous screenings. That kind of makes it a more national event.
Tim: We’d really like to create a guide or tool kit of resources so that others can learn how to do what we’ve been doing and start doing it in other cities. So that they can learn from all of the logistics we’ve gone through.
Can you talk about the “Future of Food” screening that took place in June? (The “Future of Food” investigates the trend of unlabeled, patented and genetically engineered foods that now fill most U.S. grocery store shelves.)
Tim: Yeah, 405 people came out. There were people standing in the aisles. It was almost sold out.
Matt: The Merc basically covered the cost of renting Liberty Hall and the rights to show “The Future of Food.”
Tim: These film screenings are a major source of funding to provide the materials for the public access shows and the promotional flyers.
Matt: And every once in a while we’ll donate to a cause.
Matt: Well, there was that fire in East Lawrence that burned down a house… we donated $50 to that. And we’re going to be donating $50 to Greensburg, too.
Tim, you talk a lot about disseminating this information to the public because the media’s not doing its job. Why did you decide that you should be the ones to get this information out to people?
Matt: I don’t know if we think about it in those terms… It just needs to happen. There’s other people doing it too.
Tim: Right. We don’t make the films ourselves. There’s lots of quality films out there to take advantage of. We just try to make the information available to people.
Matt: Like the Solidarity bookstore. People have access to that. It’s important. It’s definitely not like trying to make a movie ourselves.
Tim: Yeah, I guess we’re just gung-ho about it. So we just do it. About a year ago I had been doing a lot of extensive research into major problems such as peak oil, global warming, the Iraq war and I found that the media is the largest bottleneck problem regarding those issues. People have to be informed first so they can take action on those problems. We decided we needed to address the issue of media first by learning about more mainstream media like Fox News and even sensationalized infotainment on CNN. And we learned that there’s clearly a quality gap that needs filling.
Matt: One of the things Noam Chomsky always talks about is how it’s difficult to introduce a new idea into society. The way that most television news works is that you introduce a new idea that goes against the grain, but you’re not given enough time to explain that idea so it sounds crazy at first.
Tim: Right. Sound-bite syndrome.
Matt: With a film, you get an in-depth explanation of an idea. Then you can more fully debate its premise and its faults.
Tim: People hear some things from this news source and some things from another and it’s so divisive. We need to create a forum where a large amount of people and get together and actually discuss these things.
Can you talk a bit about your public access television programming?
Matt: The public access… I don’t want to put down the public access but you can kind of tell they have a limited staff…
Tim: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like they’re funded very well.
Matt: In the first month or so we got some complaints that our movies weren’t run when they were supposed to and we talked to the people up there and they thought they were getting it done but they weren’t. That’s the hard thing about our public access channel … we don’t have TV so we have to rely on other people telling us if our programs are getting aired or not.
Tim: I don’t know if you know much about public access…
Matt: Public access television is a right that everyone has. Because Sunflower Cablevision has a monopoly, they are required by the government to provide some public access. They have their cable running through public land. Hopefully if it gets used a lot they’ll add another public access channel.
Tim: I think they can add a new station if it’s being used eight hours a day five or six days a week. But the times they’re allowing people to air stuff is only from 5 p.m. to midnight, I think. It’s certainly an underutilized source for the community. They’re also supposed to provide technical equipment.
Matt: And the equipment is a bit outdated to say the least. Just from a film maker’s standpoint. But it makes sense that they wouldn’t put a lot of money into it; it’s not a money generating thing for them. But it could be a really great thing. Austin, Texas has a great public access system. It would be nice too, if it wasn’t on channel 99.
Tim: The nosebleed channels.
Matt: But it’s still nice that it’s there.
Tim: I think the whole idea of public access television touches on the importance of the media when our forefathers created our constitution. The first amendment talks about a free media. They had low postage rates for newspapers back then so that anyone could start a newspaper and get the information out to the public. They operated on the fundamental premise that for a democracy to work the public must be informed.
Matt: It’s crazy to think that just a few corporations with a business agenda…
Tim: …they’re required by law to make a profit…
Matt: Yeah, it’s crazy to think that’s the best way to inform the public on these topics.
What have you planned for your next film?
Tim: “The Power of Community.” We’re not sure when. It’s about solutions to the peak oil problem. Cuba artificially went through a peak oil phase when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba was left without a supply of oil. Their community had to very rapidly adapt to having very little petroleum, so over the next ten years they created massive systems of public transportation and rapidly developed wind and solar energy.
Matt: They also totally revised their agricultural practices.
Tim: It’s a pretty inspiring story about how a community came together to address the peak oil issue. Some scientists have recently come out and said that the peak oil issue may be coming for the United States a lot sooner than people previously thought—possibly the next four years rather than the next ten.
You’ve also drafted a Peak Oil Resolution that you plan to present to the city commission. Did you come up with the wording yourselves or is it modeled after resolutions in other communities?
Tim: It’s tailored on several resolutions that have passed in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, and we’ve adapted it to Lawrence’s unique circumstances.
Matt: It’s a pretty important issue. At least we think it is. And it’s going to have to happen on a local level… It’ll have to happen on the national and state levels as well, but for people to really get involved and make changes, it definitely has to happen on a local level.
Tim: A lot of the solutions to the peak oil issue are going to be local. The sooner that Lawrence gets its act together, the less taxing it will be on the citizens and the city.
Matt: The thing is, the experts say there are all these solutions to these problems but you have to get a jump on them…
Tim: You can’t switch to wind technology without oil because you need oil to produce wind turbines.
Matt: We’ll probably make the switch to hydrogen cars or electric hybrid cars (in the U.S.) but it’s not a switch you can make overnight.
Tim: They talk about that it will take 10 to 20 years to completely switch over America’s entire auto fleet to something like electric hybrids. The Hirsch report says that we need a 20-year lead time to mitigate the consequences of Peak Oil. When I first saw “The End of Suburbia,” I thought jesus, what do we do about this problem? Just from the solutions we’ve seen on the west coast, it seemed like a good idea to get the city on board because they can make policy changes city-wide. For instance, they have the power to create an ordinance saying that all new houses have to have water heaters with solar power.
Matt: Yeah, natural gas has already peaked in the United States. That’s the main reason the prices have gone so high.
Tim: With peak oil there are two main areas of focus: community solutions and municipal, city-wide solutions. Just once example of ordinance that can make a huge different is to require all restaurants and businesses to use biodegradable potato starch for their take-home containers. When you think about people trying to recycle, it can be difficult and not everyone does it. But if you pass an ordinance, you can almost instantly reduce the amount of waste going into the landfills with very little effort.
Matt: We need to get together and decide as a community how Lawrence should deal with this issue, which might be different than Topeka or Kansas City.
For more information about Films for Action’s upcoming movie screenings, their public access channel film schedule, or to sign their petition to introduce a peak oil resolution in Lawrence, go to http://www.filmsforaction.org.
The peak oil report commonly referred to as the “Hirsch Report” is officially named “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management,” and can be read at http://www.energybulletin.net/4638.html .