Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Scrapper (2011): An Appreciation

This started out being a review of the film Scrapper, but I got sidetracked. Somewhere along the way I stopped being critical. Part of it is that I really like the film a great deal, and I started to do some additional research on it to continue the experience beyond the film. Part of it is that I've now had a couple of conversations with the film's director Stephan Wassmann, and I've become slightly less objective.

This shouldn't diminish the fact that I genuinely think, as I wrote right after I saw the film, that this is one of the finds (and one of the best) of the year. It's a film that takes us to a place that most of us have never seen. It shows us some things about which we never thought about. It's a film that often seems like it's not about anything but watching some "rednecks" (as Variety called them) having a good time, when in reality it's about things that are much darker.

Somewhere along the line in trying to say more than I did last Thursday night I realized that I really can't write anything critical. All I can do is talk about the screening, meeting Wassmann, and my feelings for the film. To that end I now present... An Appreciation Of Scrapper.

My first meeting with Stephan Wassmann was outside of the Brooklyn Heights Cinema. He was standing on the sidewalk handing out promotional material for his film and chatting up anyone who had passed. He connected with one woman and managed to talk her into going in to see his film. Actually, he had done more than that; he had gotten her fired up enough that she went in and borrowed the cellphone of one of the festival organizers in order to call people to come down and see the film.

To me this was a great sign. As I learned with Chun-Yi Hsieh's film Braid, there are certain times when a director doesn't try to force you to see his film, but merely suggests that you really want (or need) to see it, that ultimately you do. It's an approach that works because it suggests the director knows and trusts his work enough to let it speak for itself. It's times like those when you know you're in for something special.

I got that vibe from Wassmann the instant I first met him.

Later in the evening, at the time of our third meeting (we’ll not get into the second where I basically tripped over him in the aisle), I saw Wassmann standing in the lobby of the theater. I found I had to summon my courage to go up to him to tell him how much I loved his film. (I'm notoriously shy in speaking with people whose work I like.) (Ask DB to tell you the story of NOT talking with Alan King if you ever meet him - Ken)

I think he was slightly taken aback by this crazed film fan who was babbling the praises of his film at him. However, once we got past the gushing on my part and got down to actually discussing the film (and it’s tangential connection to the Tribeca Festival mess Bombay Beach), he opened up and revealed himself to be a wonderfully colorful fellow, the sort of person you'd want to meet up with and talk the night away. Best of all he told me several bits that were not covered in either the film or in the Q&A after, and it made me truly appreciate the film and his achievement even more.

The film that made me turn into a blathering film fan is called Scrappers. It’s a great little film about the the various people who wander out onto the Chocolate Mountain Bombing And Gunnery Range in Southern California, in order to pick up the scrap aluminum, brass and other precious metals that are left behind from the bombing runs...which sometimes involve dealing with unexploded bombs.

The film is also the story of the town of Niland, California, which is on the Salton Sea, about 2 1/2 hours east and slightly north of San Diego. It’s a dying community that some people are struggling to keep alive.

Niland and the Salton Sea is the also setting for the previously mentioned Bombay Beach. Beach deals with several other residents in Niland, including the Parrish family, who have been in and out of trouble with the law because of their love of blowing things up. They do their own scrapping and would follow the troops on maneuvers in the bombing range to pick up cast off equipment and explosives which they use for their own explosive fireworks shows. Scrappers only deals with the family fleetingly, using them to explain the sort of people that really scare the government (the ones collecting explosives...though the government ultimately hates all the scrappers).

Scrapper's focus is mostly turned toward three groups of scavengers. First we meet Randy and his brother Ronnie, meth addicts who scavenge to support their habit and in order to keep their machine shop running. They connect us to Downey, who is one of the best scrappers. Downey knows where all the good metal is and he isn’t afraid to go get what he needs to get by.

We also meet JR. He’s the king of the scrappers, and is a legend in that world. He’s also dangerous to be around. JR dislikes most people, so he moved to the far side of the bombing range and staked out his own territory to be able to work without interference. He protects his territory with his wits and his guns. He'll take pot shots at anything he doesn't like. He aims to run the invaders off, even going so far as to set fire to any cars or trucks he runs across. (Wassmann said it was a long, involved process first finding, and then winning the friendship of JR. He's a tough old bird who enjoys his own company best.)

Over the course of the film (which was filmed from 2001 until 2008) we watch as the various characters scrap, get caught by the police, go to prison, and are forced to make the difficult choice as to whether to stay in and around Niland or move on.

The film also spends time with Mike Aleksick. He’s the fire chief for Niland. He seems to be a kind of de facto mayor of the town, and trouble shooter. He knows pretty much everyone and it’s to Aleksick that people turn when things go south. He tells several stories during the film of having to go out and rescue inexperienced scrappers who get into trouble or blown up by the bombs they are scavenging. Sometimes they are still alive, and sometimes they aren’t. Aleksick also makes clear that only sometimes does the military stop their bombing runs to allow the people to be rescued or bodies to be recovered. It's a thankless job, but he does it because someone has to.

Lastly the film introduces us to a silhouetted government official. He tells us about the threat that the scrappers pose for the US government. He said this threat comes from the taking of explosives (remember the Parrish family?) which he characterizes as an act of terrorism. Actually, he thinks that all the scrapping is a form of terrorism, but the explosives present the biggest danger. He also goes into the problem of the smuggling trails that criss-cross the bombing range over which drugs and illegal aliens are moved. (There is a humorous exchange when two car loads of illegals stumble upon the scrappers; however, because the scrappers fear trouble with the Mexican crime families, we don't see much of the smuggling in the film).

It all makes for an entertaining film...that sneaks up on you with a great deal of food for thought.

When it started I was instantly drawn into the film's spell. Here were a bunch of guys who were out to make some “fast money” (which it’s not; it's hot, it’s dangerous, and there is a great deal of work required). The film seemed to be kind of a lazy day in the desert with some crazy people.

And then suddenly it begins to turn.

Yes, it’s entertaining, but the film begins raising questions about who these people really are. What are they doing, and are they really potentially terrorists? You begin wondering about larger implications, such as who else is doing this besides these guys? What are these other people doing with the things they find? What is our government doing about all of this? What of Niland? If there is nothing there, why are these people still around?

As it went on the film began connecting up all of these seemingly random points relating to the various questions, and I suddenly had a few “oh, wow” moments. The "oh, wows" made me realize that I really had to see this film again, since this seemingly simple film really wasn't all that simple if you put some thought into what you're seeing.

It was at this point that I began to realize just how good this film really was. Here is a picture that doesn’t give you all the answers. Here’s a movie that is raising some flags and wants you to figure out what they all mean. Yes, it’s telling you a good story, but it’s trying to engage the audience to do more than just sit there and watch some guys dismantling unexploded bombs.

I like that the film takes into account one of my rules for what constitutes a good documentary: if you’re going to show me something I’m familiar with, show me something about it I don’t already know. Show me something I’ve not seen before.

With Scrapper, the film filled in vast voids of blankness in regards to the town of Niland, and the Salton Sea area. Bombay Beach, which I had seen earlier this year, was set there, but it didn’t say anything about the place or even the people who lived there. It was simply the equivalent of watching random people wander about onscreen between out of place dance numbers. It didn’t tell me anything about the town or its residents. I had no idea who anyone was or why I should care. Scrappers righted that wrong and said more in five minutes of screen time then the 90 minutes of Bombay Beach. By the time the film was done I had a great sense of the place, and of the people living in the town and the surrounding desert.

When the film finished screening Wassman got up and took some questions from the audience. Without hesitation he waded into the fray and started answering with a steady stream of facts and stories that made it clear that when this film hits home video, there needs to be a commentary track attached because there are just so many great additional stories. (I'd love to see a second DVD of outtakes as well)

He talked about the money the guys make scrapping.

He talked about where the film started, via several unconnected projects Wassmann and his partners were doing, including a magazine article.

He addressed the fact that for a long time JR didn't tell anyone that he was almost blind. When they rode with him into the desert at night, he really couldn't see where he was going, so they frequently drove into bomb craters.

He talked about how the Meth was ruining the lives of several of the people in the film, especially Randy and his brother. He told the story of when they first went out to start filming, he and his partners ran into the brothers who took them out scrapping while riding a Meth high. Afterward they went home with the pair whom they feared might kill them if they suddenly decided they didn't want to be on camera. It never happened, and in fact Randy has even been acting as point man at some film festivals.

When I spoke with Wassman at the end of the night I was informed that there was a great deal of additional footage with more characters and more adventures that just didn’t make the cut, including some stuff on a guy nicknamed Snakeman, who, although a great "character", just couldn't be shoehorned into the film. Snakeman, Wassman said, was worthy of a film unto himself.

A large part of my discussion with him was on his struggle to shape the film and being torn between what he wants, and what other people think is best. If you ever want to know how much a film is not a solo creative endeavor, talk to a filmmaker.

I loved this film a great deal. Yes, on some level my being able to talk with Wassmann added to my enjoyment, but at the same time, the film was good enough that I approached him, and went on in great detail about how much I liked it, before we had a private chat that deepened my love for it.

Scrapper is a great film. (And it just won the Spirit Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival for Best Documentary)

This is one to search out.

It's a deceptively simple little story that will have your mind buzzing for days afterward. Keep an eye out for this one.

(For those wishing to read more details I direct you to an excellent interview with Wassmann run in Film Threat Magazine which is found here.)

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