As a kid visual artist, writer and filmmaker Ethan Minsker gravitated toward the Washington, D.C Punk scene’s roughest edges and developed dangerous fascinations. He could have ended up dead or in jail like many of his friends, but instead he found Betamax home movies, fanzines, performance art, and writing. Eventually, he focused his drive to create and crusade the making of art and founded an art movement dedicated to outsiders like himself.
With his compelling film, Man in Camo, and through the lens of old photographs and films, Minsker leads viewers on a journey through the hurdles that once held him back - from dyslexia to the violence of 1980s Washington D.C. It was these hurdles that forged his love of film and art, and his work now spans across three decades. He is creator and editor-in-chief of Psycho Moto Zine, which has been in publication since 1988; and is a founding member of the Antagonist Movement, and Est Village/LES-based group of artists, writers and musicians that promotes lesser-known works by up-and-coming talent. He also was the recipient of the ACKER AWARD for Visual Arts in 2016.
Man In Camo brings forth not just the love of art, but the reasons for making it in the first place. Recently screened at the Victoria, Texas Independent Film Festival, where it enjoyed its world premiere; Minsker will be attending this year’s Hells Half Mile and recently shared his thoughts about the genesis of his film, what drew him initially to the D.C. Punk scene, and the creative objectives he strived to achieve with Man in Camo.
“This film came from two things,” reflects Minsker, “first are the years I’ve spent making my past 8 documentaries on the arts and the artists I’ve worked with. Part of this process is screening the film to filmmakers I know and respect. When I did that a common theme kept coming up, because they would say things like, ‘There should be more of you in this film’, or ‘You are the voice that connects everyone.’
“At first I resisted these comments because these were films about a group of artists and I am just one part. I didn't want it to seem that the collective was just about myself. Eventually though, I decided to Hell with it, I will make the biggest ego trip film I can. Enter Man in Camo, which is basically a self-portrait documentary similar to a painter’s self-portrait.”
“There is a universal feeling that all of us star in our own film, kinda like The Truman Show,” he continues. “I started documenting myself at a very early age knowing I would use it for something later in life. Photos, art, and super 8 films that I somehow kept in pristine condition. If our lives really flash before our eyes during death, I imagine this film would be what I’d see; but instead I just packaged it up and shared it with an audience.”
“Making a film about yourself you have to be careful to not make yourself out to be perfect,” cautions Ethan. “I did my best to talk about a lot of very personal things: violence, being dyslexic and even my dating life and how those things connect to my art. Things I would never reveal if I was the subject of another filmmaker; and many things I haven't told close friends. I just wouldn't trust them with it. When I asked art critic Carlo McCormick to be interviewed for my film, he declined after watching a preview because he thought it was masochistic.”
“What drew me to the DC punk scene? Well, growing up in Washington DC is like living in the shadow of the government and in the 80's the scene just started to take off,” confesses Minkser. “Being dyslexic I was often picked on, so I found solace within punk rock. And punk rock showed me that you can kick in those closed doors - you can walk through them and your differences are the best parts about yourself. Punk, in its best theories means there are no rules, so making a film on yourself is perfectly respectable. It wasn't just bands playing shows, it was a movement. So my objective for Man In Camo was to show artists you don't have to live a solitary existence. I work in a lot of different areas - writing, films, visual art and performance art. People know me for one aspect of my art, but this film ties it all together and I think of Man In Camo as an art project in itself.”
When asked about the most challenging component involved with creating Man In Camo, Ethan references a mantra that he thinks about when making films: “It’s like wrestling a snake - if you want to pin it you need to hold down each part of it and take it one step at a time. I also think when you are both the shooter and editor you have to have two frames of thought. When I am filming I am loving every little part of the process; then when you switch to being the editor, you have to be super judgmental and hate everything leaving only the best parts.”
“This film is like a one-man band,” he continues. “Most of it I filmed, edited, and animated myself. So picture me in a room with a camera pointed at me while talking to the camera as if someone is listening. The upside to that is that for most of those interviews I am in my boxer shorts, but I do have to make a shout out to all the people who helped on this like Shayne Kamat and Darian Brenner, who both were the second DPs and many more. It's entirely self-funded. I work a day job as an assistant editor for a national cable channel, so I did the best I could with the little money I could scrape together and this has taken about 3 years to finish. Actually, 49 years since it’s been in progress my entire life.”
In terms of his own artistic influences, Ethan points to Arturo Vega, who was artistic director for New York Punk Rock icons The Ramones, who has a small part in the film and is a close friend and collaborator. “ He taught me to be open to mixing in new elements and to work with people from different backgrounds. He was like a mixing spoon. Apart from him, I picked up fast editing and colorful design from the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, all while searching for an inherent truth like the writer Charles Bukowski.”
“I have worked hard to make this a unique experience for audiences,” concludes Ethan. “When I watch documentaries about artists, for the most part it is a standard formula. What I came out with in Man in Camo was this sort of meta-visual trip that brings you inside the mind of what some might say is a mad man. It's filled with art of all types, animation, and cameos you would not expect. And even though there is a clear start, middle and end, its structure is built so that audiences will be surprised over and over.”
“It covers some tough subjects, I didn't censor myself to make this a commercial product, so I hope it's unlike anything you can find online or broadcast, and in the end it may be a film that only lives at screenings since I’m not sure if I would want to share it beyond that.”
Man in Camo will be shown at The Delta College Planetarium at 6:30 PM on Saturday, September 29th.
9th February, 2024