From glitzy, hipster-courting sponsors—including IFC Films and New York magazine—to the free flavored beverages (courtesy of Vitamin Water during the show) and free alcohol (courtesy of Radeberger Pilsner at the after-party around the corner), Rooftop Films Summer Series 2010, at first glance, seems to have taken a page from the slick playbook of the Gen Art Film Festival. There's the indie band to warm up the crowd before the screening and a bulky program the size of Interview magazine. There are trailers for the IFC channel's latest TV hit and for YouTube-sensation-turned-documentary-feature Winnebago Man. By the time the nine o'clock program finally rolls, inevitably fashionably late, you've nearly forgotten what you came there to see in the first place.
But then the sky goes dark, and one of the 23 features or 21 shorts programs included in this "14th Annual Summer Series of Underground Movies Outdoors" begins. And the magic of cinema slices right through the hype.
The evening of lovely shorts I attended on June 24th was titled "The Rural Life and Spirit," and conveniently took place in my Greenpoint, Brooklyn neighborhood, specifically on the lawn of the Automotive High School (one of Rooftop's 13 venues around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx that also includes parks, piers—and, oh yeah, actual rooftops). But the program just as easily could have made for a perfect end to Father's Day the Sunday before. The theme of strong, sensitive straight guys began with Canadian Malcolm Sutherland's Great Ambition, a less-than-three-minute animation about a singing cowboy and his yodeling birds, which segued nicely into Michigan filmmaker David Wilson's 12-minute Big Birding Day, in which Wilson's camera films a group of close-knit friends, tightly bonded through their shared passion for competitive bird-watching (as the men, in turn, trained their own lenses on as many different species as possible in a 24 hour span). From there it was onto the men and birds of the seven-minute Fledgling—or rather, one particular crow named Raisin and his rescuer Kevin, a father painfully aware that he's screwing with the balance of nature by allowing his daughter to raise what should be a wild animal. This poem-in-motion from Colorado co-directors Tony Gault and Elizabeth Henry seems to owe more to Henry David Thoreau than to National Geographic, and would make for a smartly nuanced addition to any environmental festival.
By the time Tennessee filmmaker Stewart Copeland's 30-minute Let Your Feet Do The Talkin'—a fascinating portrait of legendary buck dancer Thomas Maupin and his beautiful relationship with his banjo-strumming grandson—hit the screen, I felt like I was witnessing a cinematic cultural exchange program. Since it was getting late I slipped out during intermission, missing both Adam Gutch and Chu-Li Shewring's Spirit (Semangat) (from the UK and Borneo) and also the Q&A with the various filmmakers that followed. Nevertheless, what I did catch reminded me that the United States is a big wide world in itself, something that we city folks too often forget. Indeed, directors like Gault and Henry and Copeland remind us that movies from our own pastoral outposts are much more exotic and foreign than anything that arrives on these shores from big urban centers like Berlin or Sarajevo. Too often we forget that there are talented filmmakers right in our own rural backyard, recording their very own unique way of life.
Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door and the author of the memoir Under My Master's Wings.