Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Email Q & A with Joe Biel — director, $100 & A T-Shirt: A Documentary About Zines in the Northwest US

$100 & A T-Shirt: A Documentary About Zines in the Northwest US will be shown as part of the Victoria Baths fanzine convention on May 14, offering a concise, watchable overview of what fanzines are and who makes them through a look at the zine scene in Portland, Oregon around 2003/2004. Producing the film was a real labour of love, as The Shrieking Violet found out during an email interview with director Joe Biel from Microcosm Publishing.

SV: Tell us about yourself — who you are and what you do, and what Microcosm publishing is.

JB: I've been reading, making, and self-publishing zines for about 18 years. More recently I've taken to editing and writing books and directing documentaries. I co-authored a book called Make a Zine! and have a new one called Beyond Resistance and Community about people who took the ethics and aesthetics of punk beyond music. I'm currently finishing a new documentary feature film called Aftermass about the history of bicycle activism in Portland, where I live.

Microcosm Publishing is a distribution and publishing outfit based around the zine movement. We work hard to give these writers' voices more reach and a wider audience. The thing that people don't talk about much in publishing — especially in the digital age — is that it's easy to publish but it's harder to build an audience. Microcosm fills that gap.

SV: Can you explain your involvement with zines and what interests you about them?

JB: Beyond the fantasy books, when I was in high school I thought reading was simply very boring. Aside from the Dr. Bronner's label, I stopped reading completely. Then in 1993 I went to a punk show at the Euclid Tavern and Jake Kelly sold me a copy of his zine Summer for $1 and I was hooked. It was engaging and funny, spoke in a familiar tone and didn't pull any punches. I wrote to all of the other zines listed in it and haven't much looked back. I started publishing my own zine almost immediately and within a few years I founded Microcosm to do essentially what it does today.

After a shaky few years, Jake and I reconnected recently after he read an interview where I mentioned this incident. He replaced all of my back issues of Summer — which somehow hold up to the test of time 18 years later. He's a poster artist now and make new things regularly.

Ken Blaze recently produced a book recently about that era of Cleveland — Escaped To The Future — that I feel captures the scene perfectly that we were growing up in around the punk and performance club Speak in Tongues.

SV: Could you tell us a bit about the zine scene in Portland at the time of $100 Dollars and A T-Shirt, and the zine symposium?

JB: When we were shooting $100 in 2003 it felt like the zine scene couldn't get any bigger in Portland. Any it would seem we were right. That might have been the biggest zine boom I've seen here. So in that sense our timing was perfect but that wasn't the reasoning — it felt like an exciting time. People were successfully expressive and not necessarily looking for something bigger or better. There's an awkward relationship with self-publishing certainly and there are certain people who would say they wanted bigger things, but I think if I was to generalize I would say that everyone in the film had something to say and that was ultimately what motivated them.

Nicole Georges, Eleanor Whitney, and I started the Zine Symposium in 2001 out of similar motivations — we wanted to showcase the emerging scene and attract people from across the country to Portland. By 2005 none of us were involved anymore and while there are some longtime organizers that still come and go, it's largely organized by a new group of people each year. And while the scene hasn't continued to grow steadily across ten years, the event and the scene still exist and people still come from across the country for it. And it's a difficult thing not to be nostalgic about and embrace the change that is largely inevitable.

SV: Why did you decide to make the film?

JB: The simplest reason is that I was teaching gifted and talented high school students and later classes at Univ. of Oregon about zines and it really felt like a video would be the best educational tool for classroom use. I looked and looked for a functional video and came up dry over and over. So eventually I tried to organize other people to put together such a thing. I guess I didn't realize how big of a project a feature length documentary was because people kept asking to see my outlines, financial planning, and the standard presentation that you would use to solicit someone with your film.

The films I had been involved with had been no-budget, DIY, very collaborative, and still completed in a matter of a few months. I assumed this would be the same. But it was hard to keep people involved when there was a lot of work involved and most of it wasn't fun. Then the editor had a baby. A year later I was directing and editing and most of the other people had dropped off. By the end only one other person had been involved during the whole duration of production — Phil Sano. He had also been nice enough to provide all of the equipment, tapes, instructions, and ideas. On top of that I suspect he put in another hundred hours of free editing while I slept next to him.

University of Oregon stopped inviting me back and starting using the video instead. Did I win or fail?

SV: How did you decide who to interview and how to make the film?

JB: I was working as an idealist and literally tried to interview everyone who was making or had made zines in Portland. At one point Basil Shadid was doing the same thing in Seattle but those tapes were never sent to the editing studio. We couldn't get everyone to agree to be interviewed — Jim Goad in particular I spent a lot of time trying to convince to talk to me but despite being at the center of the national media as a zine maker he felt no connection to any "zine community".

Basil was very interested in writing the documentary and so we had some pre-production meetings and hammered that out together. But he had to quit shortly after. It was helpful because even with over a hundred hours of footage that part seemed confusing and formidable — and after watching Exit Through The Gift Shop it was comforting to see that's not a unique problem to have.

SV: What sort of obstacles did you come across making the film – I understand that it was quite a time-consuming process?

JB: Our production timeline wasn't unusual for a documentary film — especially considering that everyone involved had full time jobs on top of doing the work. And we produced everything with no grants, financial loans, or funding. But we did have a lot of problems that were unique. I had an abcess on my foot through much of the interviewing process and was on antibiotics that prevented me from sleeping — and later turned out to be destroying my colon. We broke a lot of equipment — including the main camera and tripod. We didn't have any cars so we rode our bikes with all of the equipment to each shoot. I tried to schedule four interviews per week — two per day each on Tuesday and Thursday. I would work my normal job the other five days and then later on after the editor had to step down I spent 4 days per week in the editing studio — which was rented at $10/day — a price that I couldn't appreciate enough at the time. Then the biggest obstacle was that I didn't have any experience editing anything near this size or an understanding of how to tell a clear story.

SV: Who was $100 Dollars aimed at? It's quite a comprehensive overview of zines that anyone could watch even if they didn't really have any prior knowledge on the subject.

JB: We operated on a somewhat utopian ideal — we knew people into zines would watch the movie so we tried to sink the hooks into a general audience. Did we succeed? I don't know. It seems so inherently nichey to me but as soon as it came out Library Journal reviewed it positively and that seemed to drive sales for a few years to libraries and schools. It's fallen off in the last three or four years but it's also getting older and perhaps everyone already owns it.

SV: The film has stood the test of time — it’s structured in a way that is still relevant now, broken down into clear sections like ‘Who makes zines’ and ‘Why do people make zines’. If you remade the film now, would anything be different?

JB: Perhaps it's my age, but the interviews are only eight years old and so the world hasn't changed too drastically in that time.

However, in eight years, I have learned a lot about filmmaking. Dozens of people have said the documentary hooked them on zines. Well, it hooked me on filmmaking. I devour books on film and still watch at least a few documentaries each week — and that process started when I was doing research for $100.

The biggest changes I would make are for watchability's sake. It would have been very different structurally. I would selectively do a closer focus on five of the better spoken characters and follow them around a bit more with some verite footage and a more revealing look at their lives. I would look at the biggest picture in ways other than interviewing and trying to include clips from everyone remotely involved. I would try to tell a story more intentionally through my research rather than following what clips I had and what people said articulately and with good-quality footage.

Other than that, I would use closer shots on the interviews and I would have shot a lot more b-roll so we weren't always looking at talking heads. I also have much better equipment of my own now. The technology shift has been very fast with cameras and mics and I feel like I could produce a feature documentary for $1,000 that ostensibly looks and sounds like a documentary with a $20,000 budget. I couldn't have done that eight years ago and maybe, as every review says, "it's fitting for the subject matter”.

SV: Would you add a section on digital technology — webzines etc?

JB: I don't think so because I don't think that connects to the same social scene that the documentary looks at. I feel like that warrants its own documentary...that I have no interest in making.

SV: Do you think zines have become even more popular now, or have undergone a resurgence in the last few years?

JB: I don't think you can look at zines with the same booms and busts that you would look at a financial progress or something linear. I think there's a major shift that has been slowly evolving where the people attracted to the medium stick with it and those who simply want an audience, springboard, or have something to say will employ other methods that have the potential for mass-markets or elevation.

I think for those reasons it is harder and harder to find zines but I don't think there are less being produced. Microcosm publishes a journal about zines Xerography Debt that writes reviews of new zines. Shortly after we started publishing it there was concern about not enough zines being produced. Part of the motivation was to encourage more zines to be made and made-available for readers. The focus of Microcosm has long been to build a social movement. And one success we've had is to be able to show where and how zines are booming worldwide — but maybe not in the most obvious places that you would look.

SV: Do you think there is a future for zines and, if so, what do you think it will look like?

JB: I think zines will continue to move in the direction of hand-sewn bindings, screenprinted or blockprinted covers, and personal/textual things that couldn't be replicated in any other medium. I think zines are largely still recovering from an awkward flirtation with mainstream success in the 90s.


$100 Dollars and a T-Shirt will be screened at 12pm on Saturday May 14 during the Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention. Find out more information about what's going on the day and how to get involved here.

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