[Fantasia 2020] CLAPBOARD JUNGLE -- A Brutally Honest but Self-Congratulatory Journal of a Life in the Film Industry
Review by Sean Boelman
Documentaries about the filmmaking process so often tend to romanticize the art, acknowledging its challenges but still depicting it as something very different from reality. Justin McConnell’s new “survival guide” Clapboard Jungle takes a much more grounded and frank approach, allowing it to be a meaningful watch despite feeling self-congratulatory at times.
Shot over a period of years, the documentary serves as McConnell’s personal video diary as he struggles to stay afloat in the film industry after having gotten his foot in the door. There are already plenty of documentaries that exist to inspire up-and-coming young filmmakers who are trying to figure out how to get their big break, but it’s refreshing to see one that addresses the long-term viability of a career in the industry.
Many documentaries would have their viewers think that filmmaking is a consistently fun and rewarding process, but McConnell shines a light on the fact that it can feel absolutely horrible and defeating at times. It certainly isn’t easy, and it’s surprisingly common to question whether or not pursuing the dream is worth it. McConnell’s message here is that a filmmaking career definitely isn’t for everyone, but for those who have the desire and will to persevere, it deserves a shot.
Part of what makes McConnell’s documentary work so well is that it comes from a place of personal experience. Too often it seems like documentaries about film are made by a third-party (and frequently novice) filmmaker who still has an idyllic view of the industry. As cynical as it may seem, it’s nice to hear the more grounded perspective of someone who is a little more jaded.
That said, the off-putting thing about McConnell’s approach is that it comes across as smug. McConnell definitely has some impressive accomplishments, but his frequent complaining can be read as him crying “woe is me”. While he does thankfully acknowledge some of the privileges he enjoys, it still feels a little insincere at times.
McConnell supplements his own story with interviews from several well-known filmmakers who worked both inside and outside of the studio system. Recognizable faces include Guillermo del Toro, Don Mancini, Lloyd Kaufman, and the late George A. Romero. These insightful and down-to-earth interviews are likely to be the highlight of the documentary for most fans.
The doc is admittedly a little rough in terms of execution, but given that this was more of a side project for McConnell, the rough and run-and-gun feel can be forgiven. In fact, it almost feels as if these experiences would be better fit to the structure of a book rather than an hour-and-a-half-long documentary.
Justin McConnell’s Clapboard Jungle is perhaps the most brutally honest documentary about filmmaking you will see. It should be considered essential viewing for anyone who wants to make it in the industry themselves.
Clapboard Jungle screens on demand (geoblocked to Canada) as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs August 20-September 2.