Sundance Features

January 15, 2007

Mitch McCabe, To Whom it May Concern

"Certainly there could be the reaction, 'Oh, that's so self-absorbed.' But that's the whole point of the film, you know?"

A still from Mitch McCabe's To Whom it May Concern

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

What can you tell me about To Whom it May Concern?

I was kind of surprised it got in because it's not your typical Sundance film -- whatever that is. It's kind of constructed narratively for sure -- not a straight documentary at all -- about a photographer's kind of self-portrait /diary over five years intercut with political events and protest footage over the same period of time. And thematically, to me, it's about perhaps modern cynicism about the world and hope for mass change. And art; I frequently ask myself, "Does art matter? Is this important?" And I think that's at the core of the film.

The idea of autobiography is obviously a continuing thread in your work. To what degree was this film autobiographical as well?

To be honest, it wasn't an intentional project. I think over the years and certainly with my first film over 10 years ago, I've been taking a lot of self-portraits, and since I started working in video, it's been sort of a double self-portrait -- which also happened in my first film. That idea to me in the film -- especially with the advent of cell phone self-portraits and posting your stuff on the Web and MySpace and everything -- is a combination of a comment on that and continually placing yourself in a postcard setting. The photographs are taken everywhere from Virginia to California to Vienna to Sweden. There's no dialogue in the film except for the protests and the screaming. It's a different kind of autobiographical element: Never speaking to the camera, and I really see myself as playing a character. I always, in my autobiographical work, see myself doing that. There are a couple pieces that are more about events in my life, and I'm barely featured if at all. That happens even in my narrative stuff, which is sometimes launched from some kind of event -- sometimes less obvious.

How did you decide that style was the right one for this story?

This project was really started from looking at protest footage from after Bush's inauguration in 2001; I was feeling very moved by that. And the question about art and whether people's actions against world events over the last five to eight years have had any real impact. And somehow to me, that related to the act of making a self-portrait -- as a way of continually saying "here I am"

Your film Playing the Part was a big Sundance success in 1995. Have you been back since then?

No, but I've attended a couple of times.

After everything that's changed since with the festival and yourself as a personal filmmaker, do you have any specific apprehensions about going back with this film?

The things that have changed about the festival are pretty tremendous. The Internet wasn't really around in 1995; at least I didn't have e-mail. But now there's iTunes, and I even just got an e-mail that there was even a stretch Hummer or something in which you could broadcast the trailer for your film. There are all these things that didn't exist, and they're pretty weird to me. I think a lot of people go to Sundance thinking they're going to get some deal, but I'm certainly not 25, and I don't think that. But it's great exposure. It's an opportunity to meet people and network, and you never know where that will lead to, and since I am working on a documentary feature, that's certainly a boost.

Even after all the festival experience you've had, do you get nervous about screening your work?

Sure. You never know what the reaction's going to be, especially with this one. It's very different and kind of edgy and I'm in it constantly, and sometimes in some pretty compromising positions.

Like what?

Well, there's partial nudity, which I hadn't done before. I tried to avoid it, but in the end, you know, you either do it or you do it. So yeah, I'm nervous about that for sure. And certainly there could be the reaction, "Oh, that's so self-absorbed." But that's the whole point of the film, you know? So if someone doesn't get it, there's a cost to that, in a way.

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Comments (2)

Just saw "To Whom It May Concern" as part of the Documentary Spotlight at Sundance. It was, for sure, my favorite of the five films. Each of the other four offered great insights into a particular situation. This film was completely original, very interesting idea.

Personally, I did not like this film at all. First, most of the protest footage was shot by others, so it did not have much really to do with her personal experience; and the timeline was completely artificial, since the hotel room shots were clearly used again and again supposedly for moments in different years. If a film maker is going to be this self-involved at least they can authentic in it. Second, the film was anything but original. She has previously used the double self-portrait and it felt more like a student film than anything else. At times funny, but ultimately empty and weak. There were some interesting shots, but the piece as a whole had no arc or profound statement to make. I will concede that the other shorts in the showcase (except for the featurette Freeheld, which showed great craft and access) were even more uneven and problematic.

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