dir. Justin McConnell.
“It’s been said that there are three things you should never do when making a film,” intones director McConnell in his opening narration: “make a film about yourself, make a film about film-making or open the film with a quote”. As he speaks the scene promptly fades to black and a quote from Henry David Thoreau drifts into focus.
It’s this kind of self-aware tone which infuses Clapboard Jungle, McConnell’s superlative documentary about – as the full title suggests – “surviving the independent film business”. In lesser hands such devices might be little more than cheap meta-quirks, but McConnell is so infectiously passionate and self-deprecating – a man simultaneously wracked with doubt whilst driven by an unconquerable fire for cinema – that one is invariably won over. His uneasy alliance between hope and despair, dreams and nightmares are at the heart of Clapboard and consequently make the stakes as compelling as any fictitious drama.
Filmed over five years and intercut with talking-head wisdom from genre luminaries such as Guillermo del Toro, Barbara Crampton and George A. Romero, McConnell charts his attempts to get various features off the ground. Although he’s a man who’s been around cinema from a young age – making client films, programming Toronto’s After Dark festival – for some reason he’s never been able to make it to the next stage, an experience he candidly reflects on with moving vulnerability. And given the long-form nature of the doc the full gut-churning rollercoaster of emotions are all up on screen: one moment he’s on the cusp of a big break, the next he’s back to square one and us with him.
To say whether McConnell ever makes it to his desired destination – or indeed if any film-maker ever fully “arrives” – would be to court spoilers, but the journey here is captured with exquisite honesty and truthfulness. Additionally Clapboard also acts as a de facto film school for anyone even vaguely interested in the machinations of cinema wizards behind the velvet curtain: the kind of insight imparted here from both McConnell and his impressive roster of guests is invaluable, and with an extra-packed Arrow blu-ray incoming there are promises of an even deeper dive.
Ultimately though it’s the human story which brings tears stinging to the eyes: in a medium built on artifice there is so much reality, longing and bravery here as McConnell dares to reach for his dreams that audiences will not be able to help but root for him, and maybe dream a little themselves too.