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.


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