USA Media Panel for 2010

Chale Nafus (Chair)

Director of Programming, Austin Film Society, Austin, TX

Michelle Byrd

Co-President, Games for Change, New York, NY

Elizabeth Meister

Producer and Editor, Long Haul Productions, and USA Donnelley Fellow, Three Oaks, MI

Renée Tajima-Peña

Filmmaker and Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz, and USA Broad Fellow, Los Angeles, CA

Kenneth Turan

Film Critic, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA

Statement by Kenneth Turan

There are many occupational hazards to being a film critic, hidden traps that waylay the unwary, but a susceptibility to cockeyed optimism is not one of them. This is a job that can exhaust as often as it excites, that can make you despair deep in your soul. Which is why being on the United States Artists media panel was such a frankly elevating experience.

For one thing, the meeting came at the end of what I can only call a summer of discontent, a season that saw the reinforcement of trends and situations that have become all too familiar. For summer is the season when the mainstream media’s modus operandi are nakedly revealed—when it is impossible to escape from the reality of how little interest the major producers have in films that are not presold in one way or another. In other words, how little interest there is in producing things where functioning adults are the core audience.

When you live and work in Los Angeles, it is all too easy to forget how much of the media world happily exists outside these narrow confines, so it was especially heartening to go from my day job to a total immersion in a different kind of media, a film and radio universe where the quality of the candidates across the board underscores the strength and vitality of the alternatives to the ordinary.

Better still, to me at least, there was a group of filmmakers and radio people within the larger group who really stood out, creative individuals whose work was powerful and distinctive, people who’ve already made a mark in their particular worlds and are primed to do even more.

But there was a catch. Would the other panelists see things the way I did? Accomplished people I’d never met, they came from spheres different from my own. What were the chances that we all would unite in deciding which few of the dozens and dozens of worthy applicants should get the assistance a USA Fellowship provides. The fact that we did agree, and with a minimum of fuss, reinforced the sense that there is such a thing as exceptional talent visible to anyone with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

To be able to select USA Fellows is a marvelous thing several times over. It offers not only the balm of recognition to people who often toil on the margins of our commercial culture, but also the kind of handsome monetary stipend that enables them to do their work, that can make a profound change in an artist’s life.

But even more than that, being on the selection panel helps the judges almost as much as it helps the winners. The passion for creation I felt reminded me of how much art means to people, something that is easy to forget living and working where I do. Judging work this good gives you the faith to go on, and that’s a privilege for sure.