Think North Carolina film is dead? These filmmakers just need 60 seconds of your time

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“He’s dead,” one member of the Dogma film group joked, “As dead as the tax credit.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON – When the North Carolina film tax credit program died at the end of 2014, the film industry left Wilmington, fleeing to chase better deals in Louisiana, Atlanta and elsewhere.

At least, that is the popular story. But in some ways, it’s a myth – a myth that only takes a minute to dispel, according to a newly-formed group of filmmakers from the Cape Fear Area.

The group, Dogma Cape Fear, is a collective of more than 20 film industry veterans – directors, writers, cinematographers and other professionals – who are working on a series of 60-second features shot in and around the Wilmington area. The films, which will be released on Instagram, are designed to entertain, but also to give the lie to the idea that North Carolina film is dead.

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Left to right: Co-Founder Charles Auten, members Robert Connelly, Nick Cocuzza (taking notes), and Chic Scaparo. The woman in the background owns the house; she donated her space as a set to Dogma Cape Fear. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Port City Daily met up with the members of Dogma while they were shooting their first short. The ensuing discussion focused on the state of the film industry and how short-film projects can address it.

Dogma co-founder Charles Auten has been in the industry for a long time, working as an actor before moving behind the camera.

“Yes, after the sun went down on the tax credit, projects left. The grant system is a failure,” Auten said. “We did lose people, to Atlanta, to other places. And we’re losing new blood, that’s definitely true. People aren’t coming here looking for film work. But there’s this idea that we – the film community – all packed up and left. That’s just not true. We’re still here.”

Many members of Dogma have houses, families and lives in the Wilmington area; these are lives that are difficult to uproot.

“Many film families have kids,” actor Christy Grantham said. “They have schools, friends, it’d be disastrous to keep moving them to chase film.”

Instead, many film professionals have stayed in Wilmington, traveling to work in Georgia, South Carolina and in other states. As Auten said, “We’re still living here, we’re just traveling, and paying taxes in other states. So, that can’t be what’s best for North Carolina, can it?”

Auten added that “filmmakers and artists get treated as hobbyists. As if we could go do this everywhere. But we’re professionals, we went to school for this, we built our lives around film in this area.”

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Cinematographer Nick Cocuzza. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Cinematographer Nick Cocuzza said the “myth” that film talent had left North Carolina was part of the inspiration for the 60-second films.

“It’s important that we’re putting it out there, highlighting not just our scenery but our talent, the overall fact that we’re ready to go, we hope film projects will take notice again,” Cocuzza said.

Alex Senesi is a director currently working on the feature film “Baphomet” in Wilmington. He said he was attracted to area in part because it offered such a wide range of settings and also because there was so much talent in the area, ready to work. Many of the Dogma members knew of each other, but met and started talking on the set of “Baphomet.”

Senesi said the group takes their name and some of their philosophical inspiration from a German-based film collective, called Dogme 95. The group, including director Lars von Trier, tried to recreate the creativity film had lost to studio reliance on genre films and special effects. At the heart of the movement was something of a paradox: Dogme 95 wanted to restore creative power to the director while at the same time producing anonymous films that didn’t credit directors as the ‘creator’ of the film.

Likewise, the team behind Dogma Cape Fear plans to release all of their films without director credits. They also eschew any traditional hierarchy. Decisions are made a weekly Wednesday meetings described by Auten as “part workshop, part editing studio, part bacchanal.” Members plan to take turns serving in different roles, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn new skills.

“New members can come to any of our meetings and get involved, and they can send us their own videos too,” Sinesi said. “We want to be as inclusive as possible. We know the talent is out there.”

While the group is deeply concerned with artistic creativity, Sinesi said Dogma Cape Fear is not looking to create bleak film in the von Trier vein. And, while Dogma members were unanimous in their frustration with the lack of political action to bring film back to North Carolina, Senesi said the films aren’t themselves political.

“Right now, we’re honestly looking to entertain,” he said. “These films will be quick, funny punches of style and irony. It’s not that we won’t touch political stuff, and – down the line – we certainly might. But we want to have fun and entertain people.”

Dogma members hope that the films’ accessibility will help them act as short, social-media-friendly reminders that the film industry’s human resources are still here in town. They also hope the films will keep their skills sharp.

“We hope this will give us a job, at the end of the road,” writer and director Chic Scaparo said. “We’re all still hoping we can do what we love for a living. We all work on projects as much as we can. When film comes back, we want to be on our game.”

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Cocuzza consults with Joshua Stowe, writer for the first short, while Alex Sinesi suggests “more blood.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Auten described Cocuzza as the “lynchpin” of the group.

“He’s quiet, but he’s the core of us, he’s got his tentacles in everything,” Auten said.

As other members talked, voicing their frustrations and hopes, Cocuzza remained quiet until finally speaking up to say, “We’re all hanging on to Wilmington … I’d rather struggle in paradise than thrive in concrete.”

Dogma Cape Fear expects to launch its first project in the next week or two. It will debut on Instragram @Dogma_Cape_Fear. The group is also inviting fellow filmmakers to send questions, comments and their own 60-second shorts to DogmaCapeFear@gmail.com.

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