Dan Rybicky, the director of the short documentary ‘Accident, MD’
(Credit: Dan Rybicky / Vimeo)

Far Out Meets: Dan Rybicky, the director of the short documentary ‘Accident, MD’

At Far Out Magazine we believe in cinema’s ability to heal.

At a time when millions of people continue to adapt their daily lives amid strict social distancing measures and cinemas around the world continue to keep their doors closed, we want to shine a light on filmmakers on a personal level. Turning our attention to the work created by independent artists, we have launched our new weekly series ‘The Far Out Film Club’. The project will focus on one filmmaker during each episode and will premiere on both of Far Out Magazine’s Facebook page and YouTube channel every Wednesday.

Offering a platform for filmmakers around the world, promoting their work to millions of cinephiles while also connecting them to other creatives, our tenth edition of the series welcomes director Dan Rybicky and his fantastic short documentary Accident, MD.

The film, which Rybicky made in collaboration with cinematographer Brian Ashby, sound recordist Michael Castelle, cameraman Mitch Wenkus and editors Eileen O’Donnell and Nora Gully, offers a bare and brutally honest view of the attitudes relating to America’s healthcare crisis. In a project that was filmed in and around the small town of Accident, Maryland, and captured the bizarre, confused and contradictory opinions of one location which, in truth, represents a terrifying large portion of the United States. While the name of the town itself is fittingly accurate, so was the time of filming, Rybicky capturing the viewpoint of those immersed amid political bewilderment as Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become President reached fever pitch.

“The stories I heard made me want to investigate Americans’ moral and philosophical approaches to concepts of ‘health’ and ‘care’ more fully,” the director told Far Out. “Inspired by this, and in the spirit of keeping the healthcare conversation alive – but in a funny, human way (similar to the wry style of Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida) — I decided to make Accident, MD — a short film that would serve as a palate cleanser of sorts after working on a feature that took over six years to complete.”

The topic was particularly relevant to Rybicky who, just like millions of his fellow Americans, had been stung by the absurd medical bills that come with any procedure. “I had to pay a lot – and I’m still not sure why or what for. The procedure I had weeks later to remove the stone cost a fortune, too, and again I didn’t fully understand why,” he explained. It was a moment of realism that sparked a creative plan.

“The film was shot in June 2016 when the presidential election that year was still several months away, and I didn’t expect to learn in Accident that Donald Trump had a much better chance of becoming president than I or most people at the time thought,” he explained. “And although my interviews weren’t overtly political, I could sense the high level of people’s frustration with the way things were, combined with their deep desire for change at any cost, might lead them to blindly choose what, or who, seemed new and made the most promises. This is best summed up in my film by the woman on the exercise bike who says, ‘Trump is our only hope’ – followed by, ‘I’m not quite sure what he’s saying about healthcare’ – and then looking imploringly at the camera, ‘What’s he saying?’

“The stories I heard made me want to investigate Americans’ moral and philosophical approaches to concepts of ‘health’ and ‘care’ more fully. Inspired by this, and in the spirit of keeping the healthcare conversation alive – but in a funny, human way (similar to the wry style of Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida) — I decided to make Accident, MD — a short film that would serve as a palate cleanser of sorts after working on a feature that took over six years to complete.”

Here, as part of the Far Out Film Club, we are premiering a screening of Muller’s short film which is available through our Facebook and YouTube channels.

You can read a full interview with Dan Rybicky below and, at 20:12 GMT, watch the premiere of his film.

The tenth episode of the #FarOutFilmClub welcomes Dan Rybicky. ‘Accident, MD’ is a survey of attitudes about America’s healthcare crisis, filmed in and around the small town of Accident, Maryland.

Posted by Far Out Magazine on Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Dan Rybicky Interview:

Far Out: Given the current circumstances and the struggles that the film industry is facing, how difficult is it to be an independent director right now?

Rybicky: “It’s always difficult being an independent director and making creative decisions freely without waiting for others’ approval. It’s thrilling as well, even if it’s harder now than usual to fund, shoot, or sell a film because of what’s happening in the industry and because of all the content being made. Not to sound too hopeful, but I also think this is when independent filmmakers – passionate, industrious people who make work not because they want to but because they have to – thrive.”

Similarly, on a personal level as both a film viewer and creator, how important is cinema as a form of release at the moment?

“Great cinema is anything that allows me to really laugh or cry or connect — or even disconnect if I need to — and it’s absolutely necessary right now. Films have shaped the way I am and how I think, and during this challenging moment, I definitely need my fix. To me, both as viewer and creator, I’m finding myself drawn to making and watching work that’s a pleasantly surprising combination of serious and funny. Or seriously funny. As long as it’s not just plain serious.

We’re focusing on your project ‘Accident, MD’ could you explain where this idea came from?

“I was rushed to Northwestern Hospital in Chicago because of a kidney stone attack, and the bill I received for my ninety minutes in their emergency room was absurd. Even after insurance, I had to pay a lot – and I’m still not sure why or what for. The procedure I had weeks later to remove the stone cost a fortune, too, and again I didn’t fully understand why.

“Around the same time, I was attending film festivals throughout the country in support of my feature documentary Almost There, which focused on an 83-year-old ‘outsider’ artist living in at-risk conditions. After screenings, I was surprised at how often audience members wanted to discuss their deep response to what the story brought up for them in terms of mental and physical health and the state of ageing in America today. People were compelled to share with me how they had been impacted by our healthcare system, and their personal stories were consistently sad, funny, and heartbreaking – sometimes all at once.

“The stories I heard made me want to investigate Americans’ moral and philosophical approaches to concepts of ‘health’ and ‘care’ more fully. Inspired by this, and in the spirit of keeping the healthcare conversation alive – but in a funny, human way (similar to the wry style of Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida) — I decided to make Accident, MD — a short film that would serve as a palate cleanser of sorts after working on a feature that took over six years to complete.”

Detail, if you could, how the scenario of this project was formed, how did you develop your ideas and did the end product match your initial expectations?

“After Googling ‘weird city names’, I found an Accident in Maryland. And because I thought Accident, MD would make a great title for a film about healthcare, I drove there on a whim only to discover Accident is a tiny rural town eerily similar to the one I grew up in. For better and maybe for worse, I quickly realised the project I was about to embark on would make me feel a lot like I was coming home.

“I got out of my car and walked from one side of the small town to the other introducing myself to everyone I met. I told them I was making a film about healthcare titled Accident, MD and did they have any feelings about the subject they could share. Most people chuckled and then started talking and didn’t stop. I could tell I’d struck a nerve, and everybody I spoke to agreed to be interviewed on camera if I returned with a crew.

“My deep connection to the people and the place convinced me this project was meant to be, so I returned to Chicago, picked up my cinematographer Brian Ashby and location sound recordist Michael Castelle, and drove back to Accident the following week. I called and emailed everyone I’d met, set up times to film with each person, met a few more people along the way, and then spent the next four and half days interviewing every one of them – over twenty total.

“The film was shot in June 2016 when the presidential election that year was still several months away, and I didn’t expect to learn in Accident that Donald Trump had a much better chance of becoming president than I or most people at the time thought. And although my interviews weren’t overtly political, I could sense the high level of people’s frustration with the way things were, combined with their deep desire for change at any cost, might lead them to blindly choose what, or who, seemed new and made the most promises. This is best summed up in my film by the woman on the exercise bike who says, ‘Trump is our only hope’ – followed by, ‘I’m not quite sure what he’s saying about healthcare’ – and then looking imploringly at the camera, ‘What’s he saying?’

“I was also not expecting some of my most conservative interviewees in Accident to sound as much like my liberal city friends when expressing their upset about the cost of and confusion surrounding affordable healthcare in our country, but this was a pleasant surprise as it confirmed my belief that, no matter how much the media tries to make things black and white and pit one against the other, the truth is messy and there really is still more that unites than divides us.

Did your creative vision change when you began to understand more about your process?

“In providing a platform for the voices living in a part of our country which first helped elect Donald Trump, I didn’t expect the opinions I’d be presenting would be as complicated or even as contradictory as they were. Because of this, I was able to creatively show how all of us—right and left, liberal and conservative—agree the healthcare system in America is broken, even as we remain conflicted about whether or not healthcare is a right, and who is ultimately responsible for taking care of who.

“Many of the participants reminded me of neighbours and relatives growing up, and their sense of fairness and justice based on their allegiances to changing local identities and economic prospects helps shed light on the paradoxical situation we remain in today four years since filming – one in which the Republicans’ promising to expand health coverage by dismantling the Affordable Care Act still gets them almost half the votes in the recent 2020 election.

“After meeting the people of Accident, I became less focused on wanting them to show and discuss their medical bills with me. Instead, I encouraged them to share whatever stories, thoughts, and feelings they wanted in relation to healthcare and the concepts of ‘health’ and ‘care’ in comfort and connection to what they were saying was what mattered the most, and filming them in their environments also supported that.”

Did you encounter any unexpected difficulties in its creation?

“The editing process was surprisingly involved for a film as conceptually simple as this, and my amazing collaborator Brian Ashby who both shot and edited Accident, MD was instrumental in working with me over the course of several months to capture the peppy rhythm and fun but serious tone I was hoping for.

“I knew I wanted to feature as many stories as possible, too, and I wanted the audience to hear enough from the interviewees to be able to get a good sense of who each person is. And although certain people and proclamations stood out while we were filming, I had no idea how the footage would be structured until we started watching it. After several cuts and lots of feedback from friends, I think we got what we wanted.”

What, in your opinion, is the most important quality in a film director?

“What’s ‘most’ important might change if you asked me next week, but for a documentary director it seems really important to me that you feel love for the people you’re filming with and be genuinely curious about who they are and interested in listening to what they have to say. This applies equally to those you’re putting in front of the camera as well those you’re collaborating with behind it.

We’ve reached a point in cinema, much like that of the music industry, when the phrase “we’ve seen it all before” becomes a topical debate.

How do you stay original? How do you find ways to produce something unique in a market that has so many creatives? Or is being unique even that important?

“I realise I’m not saying anything original here, but I don’t think the artists we admire for being really original spend a lot of time thinking about how original they are. They’re just being themselves, trusting their instincts, thinking independently. And because we can never be sure who the arbiter of uniqueness is, striving to be unique can never be a goal. Filming who and what you love, pursuing what you’re curious about or can’t figure out — that’s more important.

What/who are some of your major cinematic influences?

“I’ve been influenced by so many directors and am inspired by new ones all the time. This interview has me thinking about how influential independence is, and how lucky I was to work for one of America’s most respected independent filmmakers John Sayles. I actually met my lifelong friend Karyn Kusama who was working for John, and she’s become a great filmmaker and an abiding inspiration. But it was my love of documentaries by directors like Agnes Varda, Albert and David Maysles (especially Grey Gardens), Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore, and Nick Broomfield that motivated me to want to make them.”

Do you think those influences are prevalent in your work?

“I hope the people in my films are treated as humanely and seen in all their dimensional glory as those in the work of Barbara Kopple or the Maysles brothers, and I want what I make to have a sense of humour, which is what I love about the best films of Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield. In terms of Accident, MD, I knew we wanted to make something that combined the free spirit of Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida with the formal look of Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s Jesus, You Know and In the Basement.”

Given your inspiration, could you run us through your process? What distinctive themes are you looking to create, if any?

“My process is incredibly organic, instinctual, and rooted in need more than want. I don’t set out to create themes as much as get to know certain people or explore subjects I’m incredibly curious about. But themes do emerge the more I film and especially the more I begin to consider and connect the footage during the editing process.

“The films I needed to make in the past four years grapple with different social issues but are thematically connected by how all three subtly condemn how America’s slavish devotion to money has trumped what our country really values: healthcare (in Accident, MD), women (in Stormy and the Admirals), and arts education (in Larry from Gary).”

How have you developed your own distinct aesthetic within your work? Is it a conscious decision?

“I am very conscious of aesthetics, especially in terms of how essential they are to my own appreciation of a work of cinema, and I love to consider how my work should look and sound, etc. That said, I don’t think all my work has a distinct aesthetic. Instead, I hope I am able to give each film I make the aesthetic which best serves the story that film is telling.”

Generally, speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?

“I’m definitely attracted to who and what I love and need to know more about. WTFs attract me. Anyone or thing I see and can’t figure out but have to. This is definitely the story featured in my first full-length documentary Almost There which chronicles the ethically complicated six-year relationship my co-director and I developed with an elderly ‘outsider” artist after meeting him at a pierogi festival and the controversies that ensued when we helped him get his first art exhibit which led to his childhood home being condemned.”

Moving on to the subject of independent cinema, I’m keen to know your thoughts on its current standing. How important is independent film today, what does it mean to you?

“I think the term is complicated as I believe a lot of films are actually ‘dependent.’ As viewers, most of us rely on a handful of mega-platforms to stream our content, and as creators, we long for those platforms to buy what we’ve made only to have it lost in the mountain of titles already there — none of which feels very independent at all. But what’s great is truly independent film, like the work I see some of my students doing or the work I come across online sometime, doesn’t care about any of this. It exists free of these structures, and in a moment when so much of our structures are being challenged and hopefully changed, I think independent film is more important than ever. And even though I said most people get their content from the same five or six streaming platforms, I know there are worlds of work being created and shared and seen that’s really fresh and so good and influential we don’t even know what it is yet.”

Short films are often closely affiliated with independent film and filmmakers, do you think the landscape of this medium has changed over time?

“Maybe it’s easier to make them because of how accessible the equipment and technology is, and maybe we want to watch them more because of our dwindling attention spans, but whatever the reasons I do think the short form is as vital as it’s ever been and independent filmmakers are now able to find audiences for what they create in ways that were previously unimaginable.”

I look at streaming services and the impact companies such as Netflix are enjoying in the world of mainstream cinema, do you think this platform could provide an alternative route for independent filmmakers and shorts?

“Definitely, and I’ve been having a lot of conversations with colleagues about this lately considering how many opportunities I think there are for this kind of collaboration based on how much interest I see in short work among my students and everyone I know who doesn’t have the time to watch features. I also believe short filmmaking is the lifeblood of feature filmmaking and mainstream cinema, and companies would be smart to make this investment if they want their industry to continue to thrive.

“I was really hoping these kinds of collaborations could happen and one actually did happen after the pandemic began when South by Southwest teamed up with Amazon Prime to stream a curated selection of films, including shorts, which premiered at their festival. I’m not sure how successful that partnership was or how well any mega-streaming platform will be at supporting short films unless they put a significant amount of thought and money into the marketing and distribution of the independent filmmakers and films they want to purchase, produce, and promote – which at this point might involve creating another platform entirely so the independent work featured would not risk being lost in the endless titles we’re used to scrolling by on Netflix.

Finally, do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of cinema you may be exploring next?

“Although I’m currently considering a couple of documentary series projects which would allow me to invest in the stories of people I’m fascinated with for a much longer period of time, I’m actually writing a horror film right now based on where I live (Gary, Indiana) and will direct it utilizing everything I’ve learned from making documentaries – especially in terms of being thrifty, keeping things fun, and instilling the work with a soulful sense of the people in it and place it was made.”

To see more of Dan’s work, view his website, here.

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