American Nobodies

31 08 2010

I was in Tacoma, Washington last week.  The reason for this is that Philip Cowan of The Grand Cinema in Tacoma had decided to put on an event showcasing the work of the young filmmakers selected by Filmmaker Magazine for this year’s 25 New Faces list.  13 of the 25 made the trip to Tacoma and very quickly it was clear that this would be a remarkable experience.

Often independent filmmakers – and I would say independent artists as well [although I do not think of filmmakers in general (and certainly not myself) as artists, but that’s for another post] — work in isolation. So to emerge from that isolation and find a group of like-minded folks from Michigan and Florida and Nashville and New York and Amsterdam all showing their work and all lacking the usual ego and preciousness related to it all, well, it must be what a meerkat feels when he eases his neck above ground and sees his other fellows all safe, uneaten and ready to begin the day.

Added to the sense of community I felt there was also the experience of watching each other’s work together.  I hadn’t seen any of the films previously. Each one was — in its own way and in turn — remarkable.  It is unbelievably flattering to know that people see Sparrow Songs on par with the work of the others on the New Faces list.

Still, at the risk of singling two guys out I want to mention in particular the American Nobodies series that Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck and Robert Machoian are doing.  These two guys are from Davis, California, which is a small city south of Sacramento that houses UC Davis, and is a central hub of California’s farming community.  It’s hard to get much further outside the Los Angeles – New York film system than that.  And despite or because of their own isolation they’re making some of the most striking and consistent work I’ve seen in a long time, not the least of which is their 24 part American Nobodies series.  The films, all 2-3 minutes in length, profile one person (we’re only given their first name) as that person in their own words speaks about themselves or their work.  In watching these what struck me immediately was the irony inherent in the title.  “Nobodies” has an aural similarity to “nobility” and swapping the requisite two syllables gets to what the series is truly about.

What’s more is that as the divide between political class and the rest of us continues to grow fathoms deep there’s a frequent habit of mainstream reporters congratulating themselves anytime they even interact with anyone who doesn’t make six-figures.  David Brooks – who I bet hasn’t made his own lunch once in his life – and Gail Collins put this oblivious tic on fine display here. There’s none of that with Rod and Robert’s work.  They neither trumpet themselves, the work or their subjects but rather simply put it on display.  The result is a collection that follows in the vein of Studs Terkel or Kai T. Erickson showing Americans in the present moment as they are.

It was refreshing and energizing to meet filmmakers similarly interested in documenting the American experience and creating a form in which to do it that works to remove any barriers or mediation between the viewer and the subject.

If you have a chance check out the series here.  It’s not This American Life, it’s much more than that.


Episode 10 – They’re All Personal

11 08 2010

With the last episode I consciously set out to make a ‘personal documentary’ in the vein of Ross McElwee or Jay Rosenblatt .  In the making of this one it occurred to me – or rather I’ve decided to share – that all of these films are personal on one level or another, and this episode is no different.

This has been a great month for the Sparrow Songs project in a number of ways. First we were named to Filmmaker Magazine’s annual list of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film, then we got a great write up in IndieWire.  And now, because of all this, people in the film world are emailing and expressing interest in helping with whatever is next.  There is no certainty, but there is potential.  It is a great place to be.  It’s also a little nerve-wracking.

So this month I wanted to speak with people in a similar situation, folks blessed and cursed with the onus of potential in a situation where their performance would determine their future.  Early on, I thought about minor league baseball players.   After a lot of leg work – including a day-trip out to meet with the Inland Empire 66ers only to have their involvement fall through – we were given generous access to the players, personnel and ballpark of the Lancaster Jethawks of the Class A California League.

You – of course – can see the results of all this in the new episode.  But, there’s more to it than that.  Listening to these guys, watching the way they played the game it reminded me that we do this because – to put it simply – it’s fun.  Making and exhibiting these films is a source of joy.  Sometimes the pressure, the praise and the desire to make something concrete out of the opportunities this project has afforded us obscures that.  It was nice to be conscious of just how much fun this project is, to be aware of how much I’ve learned not only about filmmaking but also about the world itself.  I think that line of thinking brought me to an understanding similar to what the players, coaches and broadcasters in minor league baseball all have: the work is the reward, desire and ambition are part of that, but the work is the reward.

Lastly, a little something about the experience of making this piece:  I love baseball and the chance to sit in a professional dugout for two games was a privilege.  It offered an entirely different perspective.  In the dugout, no one talks stats, you can’t hear the PA system or the incessant music pumped through it and the game seems much simpler, more pure – there’s the ball and the batter and the subtle drifts of the fielders and there’s a chance to start at home and a desire to make your way along the base paths and then return.

Working Away…

4 08 2010

Here’s our post-production set-up on the latest Episode.

It’ll be up on Monday (Aug 9).

A little into the month, I know,  but we’d rather wait for a Monday than drop it on a Thursday or Friday.