Rooftop’s Mixed Bag of Shorts at the Mall Garage

Leah Mermelstein Jul 20, 2005


Rooftop Films, N.Y.C.’s premier mobile independent theater, packed 13 films, five sets of fireworks and music by the Mountain Goats onto the roof of the Fulton Mall parking lot for their Fourth of July show. (Overstimulated and hanging out at the mall – very American.) The closest set of fireworks was occluded by some building that snuck by the event planners, but what appeared to be a carpet bombing of pyrotechnics in the distance did seem appropriate. As for the films:

World on Fire (Sophie Muller, Los Angeles, CA, 4:20) is a melodramatic Sarah McLachlan music video with an ill-steered conscience. Muller uses a series of simple equations, to the tune of “$2,000 to cater a Hollywood shoot = food enough to feed 20,000 Haitian children breakfast” to illustrate her point. What point is that, you might ask. If we halt production on America’s biggest export – crap like White Chicks or National Treasure – will hunger and world poverty cease to exist? Such misguided efforts to eliminate poverty and suffering are dangerous. The IMF and World Bank are case examples. (The millions of poverty-stricken and malnourished children in the U.S. are bypassed here. Perhaps the numbers are not drastic enough – a couple grand buys more in Haiti.) This film leads the audience away from the causes of poverty and inequality: political control and distribution of money and resources, and instead focuses on providing charity.

There was a time where you could pretty much expect political non-fiction film to suffer from low-production values and didactic talking heads, rendering it useless for communicating to people outside the choir. Luckiest Nut in the World (Emily James, Fulcrum TV, 5:30) is a largely Flash-based short that makes the economics of global trade fun again. Unfortunately, it exemplifies a common pitfall of activist film: bad messaging. The singing American peanut does a great job of reaching a non-academic audience, but falls short on explaining how NAFTA affects working peanut farmers in the U.S. The nut sang to me that the U.S.’s sway in the global market place would compensate for otherwise harmful elimination of trade restrictions through NAFTA, ignoring the race to the bottom and loss of jobs in the U.S. However, for love of singing food, I am anticipating Emily James’ next film.

Sarah Prior and Monica Bigler’s crowd pleaser, Buried in the Backyard (30:00), interviews Americans who are “adequately prepared” to survive a nuclear blast and fend off hungry neighbors. Like a Cribs for the paranoid and tragically unhip, the film follows these folks into the personal bomb shelters they love, showing off their bounty of gallons of commercial-grade mustard and artificial pancake syrup. The character and plot development gleaned from these proud interviews penetrates into the deep survival instincts that can come to a head with our communal instincts. There are those that have enough food stocked for their neighbors: as one owner testifies, “feeding them is easier than shooting them.” Others are going it alone. One elderly man goes so far as to set up electric fences around his property to deter and maim hungry post-nuclear-blast neighbors. Although there is a hint of comedic condescension in the characters’ development, the audience is reminded that those with shelter only need to be right once; the shelterless need to be right every day.

The recruitment of young men and women into our nation’s armed forces is a critical supply link directly enabling our occupation of Iraq. Many anti-war groups and individuals are focusing activist energy against the Department of Defense, which spent over four billion dollars on military recruitment in Fiscal Year 2003. All That I Can Be (Educational Video Center, New York, 8:00) gets to the gut of why the armed forces’ strategies work: They look good because poverty is worse. We are introduced to William, a Brooklyn teen, and the army recruiter who sells him on going to war. The brevity of the film works to its disadvantage, cutting short William’s story. It’s a first chapter of an unsettlingly common story.

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