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SXSW Interview: Amy C. Elliott, director of Salvage

At the recent SXSW Film Festival, I had the pleasure of chatting with the documentary filmmaker Amy C. Elliott. Her latest film Salvage had its world premiere on opening night.  This film follows a group of residents who salvage goods from an open dump in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, one of the most isolated communities in North America. In town with a long history of gold and diamond mining, these salvagers find treasure in their own unique way. You can read my review here.

Raquel Stecher: What inspired you to make your documentary?

Amy C. Elliott: I had always wanted to make a film about a dump. I think it’s interesting what we throw away from an environmental impact level… I also think on a philosophical level, the subjective nature of things is really interesting… the transitory nature of things. I also thought about the idea of a community dump as a watering hole… Who goes there? What do people take out of it? What do people leave? I thought it would be a really interesting look at a community. My beat is about how we’re shaped by where we live.

 

Raquel Stecher:  How did you find out about the Yellowknife landfill?

Amy C. Elliott: I’m based in New York so I wanted to find a dump closer to me. It’s very important to have a site that you have access to. I looked around and in the states most of them are closed at this point for liability reasons, like it’s just not feasible to let people into a dump like the way I wanted to make movie… Then I did some research, just scouring the internet for any open dumps. I found a column in a newspaper called Tales from the Dump which is written by a guy who ended up becoming one of the protagonists of the film, Walt Humphries. I [thought] if there was a community somewhere that their dump has inspired a weekly newspaper column, I think I need to check it out. It turned out to be in Yellowknife. It was the closest dump of size that was open still to the public [but] it was 7,000 round-trip miles so it was not my first choice.

 

Raquel Stecher:   How long did you work on this project?

Amy C. Elliott: It was filmed over close ten years. There’s ten years worth of footage in it. I went there over a period of six years regularly, annually for a couple of weeks [at a time].

 

Raquel Stecher:  What was it like traveling to Yellowknife and did you pick a certain time of year to go?

Amy C. Elliott: It’s only 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It’s extremely isolated. At the time, it was literally at the end of the highway. There were no other roads leading out. It was an ice road… I don’t think people realize how isolated it is. I had to take three planes to get there. It’s also stunningly beautiful. It’s one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. [Traveling there] was an obstacle. I would say it was the biggest obstacle.

I went in the Spring because I thought in the height of summer the dump would be a little too much in terms of the smell and the bugs. It gets extremely cold there. Regularly negative 50. It was still snowing [in April]. It was still super cold but it was enough light and it was warm enough that the dump smelled okay. The waste was solid enough that I felt like it was a good time to go but it was [still] not the height of mosquito season.

 

Raquel Stecher: What was like what was filming the dump like? Part of the fun watching the movie is all the discoveries the salvagers make. Was there anything about the dump that was shocking?

Amy C. Elliott: It was all shocking to me because I never experienced anything quite so unregulated. When I first started shooting there, we were on the open face of the dump. You see people kids, people barefoot, you could just do what you wanted. It was really a free-for-all. I got a tetanus shot before I went and filmed.

In terms of the stuff there… I thought the food was shocking for sure. Some of the most shocking stuff were the new items. like clothes with the tags still on, kid’s toys still in plastic wrapping… you just can’t help but feel like there are people who would need that stuff, would like that stuff, who would benefit from that stuff and it’s just being thrown away.  I never quite got used to it. I thought that there was something really poignant about that.

For me [personally it was] the unopened rolls of film. There were just bags and bags of it. I just wanted to take it and send it to The Rescued Film Project and see what was on those rolls of film. The idea that that would be gone forever was really interesting.

 

Raquel Stecher: One of the biggest takeaways of the film was how resourcefulness is looked down upon. What are your thoughts on that?

Amy C. Elliott:  It’s that idea of thrift. Even as the old-fashioned virtue of thrift. It seems like something out of Benjamin Franklin days. It’s hard though… Do you really want to rescue and repair a broken DVD player? You can get one for $20 completely new. We’re living in a time where we have such access to cheap things. It’s easier… and time is valuable so is it really worth your time to go rescue. That’s the dilemma of where we are now as the world came to Yellowknife.

Photo from Salvage courtesy of Amy C. Elliott

Raquel Stecher: Was there a point when you were going to stop filming and then you continued when things started changing at Yellowknife?

Amy C. Elliott: I knew I wanted to film at least five years. I was committed to that unless something radical happened like the dump closed.I knew it was going to take a long time… The changes in the town, I could see that coming. I could see that there was something happening at the dump that was mirroring what was happening in the town. As the world became smaller… “the values from down south” as Tony talks about at the end [of the film], the consumerism, the concern with loss prevention and liability, the bureaucrats in the city were becoming more in tune with the rest of the South. It just mirrored what was happening in the dump. I think they’re intertwined intrinsically.

In my films I love exploring how where live shapes us culturally… our behavior is shaped geographically by where we live and that’s becoming rarer and rarer as the world becomes more homogeneous. As there’s a Starbucks on every corner as the world becomes… you can go anywhere now and have the same experience.

Raquel Stecher: How has the SXSW experience been for you?

Amy C. Elliott: Amazing. I love this festival. I think it’s the best. It’s one of the top tier festivals in the world but it’s also offbeat enough and different enough. They play films that you wouldn’t necessarily see it at other festivals. They really curate a different slate and the audiences who come appreciate that. A doc like Salvage is small. It’s not flashy, you do have to have some patience for it. It’s a hard film in some ways. But there’s going to be an audience here. It’s perfect place for an offbeat film like Salvage. I know that I’m going to get an audience that is engaged and wants to see that kind of stuff. I love SXSW.

Raquel Stecher: What do you hope that people will take away from Salvage?

Amy C. Elliott: That’s a two part answer. On a surface level, what I hope people take away is being more mindful of what we buy and [to think] about where it ends up. Do we really buy this next thing? Be mindful of waste. Do we have to know shepherd our products to a slightly better home rather than just throwing them out without thinking about it? The second thing would be to appreciate what’s distinct where you live and where you visit. What is special about a place and why?

Amy C. Elliott is the director of World’s Largest (2010), Wicker Kittens (2014) and Salvage (2019), all of which have premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. You can follow her on Twitter @SalvageMovie and learn more about her photography at her official website. A big thank you to Amy for taking the time out to chat with me about her film!

SXSW: Strange Negotiations

“There’s this push for your faith to be fully integrated into your person, into your identity.”

David Bazan on being Evangelical Christian

In 2006, Christian Rock star David Bazan left his band Pedro the Lion to pursue a solo career. Bazan’s entire world had been deeply entrenched in Evangelical Christianity. When he begins to question his belief and ultimately loses his faith he struggles to find a way to maintain his music career and support his family.

Director Brandon Vedder’s documentary Strange Negotiations follows Bazan a decade into his journey as he travels across the country as a solo act, performing in fan’s living rooms and in many other venues. There is this sense of community when you’re religious. It almost acts as a safety net. And when everyone in your life, your friends, your family, and your colleagues are in that world, leaving it can be incredibly isolating. The viewer goes on a road trip with Bazan and he becomes a spiritual guide. In interviews, we hear Bazan process his past, present and future within the scope of his religion and his personal struggles. Bazan’s story is juxtaposed with NPR coverage of the Evangelical movement in the U.S. and how that has effected the current political climate.

“I [saw] vulnerability as the antidote to all this anxiety and self-loathing.”

David Bazan

The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. I still have mixed feelings about the use of fancy drone shots but in this case it just plain works. The drone flies high above the barren landscape of the Bible Belt as we follow Bazan on his road trip. These shots are gorgeous, almost ethereal. It’s as if we’re seeing Bazan’s world from an angel’s point of view. The camera also gets right up into the personal space of its subject with Bazan being filmed in a tight frame while in conversation, driving through an urban landscape or in the intimate space of one of his performances.

Strange Negotiations is a poetic and deeply personal documentary about the loss of faith and the struggle to find oneself. If you’re someone, like me, whose struggled with faith, you may find a kindred spirit in Bazan. If the faith aspect doesn’t speak to you, it’s simply an interesting story about a musician at a crossroads in his life and career.

Strange Negotiations had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second documentary series.

SXSW: Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall

“These people have let you into their lives… to violate that trust is criminal.”

Jim Marshall (1936-2010)

In Jim Marshall’s illustrious career as the photographer to the stars, he captured some of the most enduring images of Rock-n-Roll legends. He elevated artists with quality photographs, capturing their images with a level of intimacy that required trust and an attention to detail that signaled respect. And that’s what these artists had with Jim Marshall, a mutual admiration. The musicians offered him their vulnerability and he in return showcased them as the rock stars they were.

In director Alfred George Bailey’s new documentary, Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall, we learn about the man behind the camera. From his early days making a photography scrapbook, to his legendary career as a celebrity photographer, this film charts the ups and downs of this talented yet difficult man’s life. It includes footage of Marshall reminiscing about his career as well as interviews with the people who knew him best including his former assistant Amelia Davis, fellow photographers, friends, musicians and a variety of experts. Notable talking heads include actor Michael Douglas (Marshall was an on-set photographer for the show The Streets of San Francisco) and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Who did Jim Marshall photograph exactly? Everybody. In the documentary we learn about his work with some of the following artists:

  • Janis Joplin
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • John Coltrane
  • The Grateful Dead
  • Bob Dylan
  • Joan Baez
  • Jefferson Airplane
  • Ray Charles
  • Miles Davis
  • Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Thelonius Monk
  • The Beatles
  • The Who
  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Doors
  • Johnny Cash

“Jim had an eye for the moment.”

Graham Nash

The biggest takeaway from this film is not the legends Marshall collaborated with, although that is pretty interest too, but the analysis of what it took for him to do his job and to do it well. We learn about how a photographer relates to his subject. Marshall was an active and passive participant. He blended in seamlessly with the scene yet was not afraid to plant himself into the personal space of his subjects. 

“He died like a fucking rock star.”

Amelia Davis

Jim Marshall was quite a character himself. His love of guns and his drug use got him into trouble. And his temperamental personality often ostracized those near and dear to him. There is a dark side to every great artist and Marshall was no exception. Yet his body of work speaks for itself.

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall is a compelling portrait of a difficult man with great talent who made an impact on the careers of the 20th century rock stars we know and love.

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second series.

SXSW: Sakawa

“We are the hustlers.”

Director Ben Asamoah’s new documentary Sakawa explores the underground world of Ghanian internet scammers. They gather in a room sharing one source of internet and electricity and using smartphones and computer equipment that they’ve salvaged. The scammers work individually on different projects but advise each other on how to improve their techniques to get the most money out of their victims. By creating fake online personas and focusing on profile types, mostly caucasians in the U.S. and the U.K., they build relationships with their targets and work towards the big pay day.

Viewers will feel conflicted. This is a community of people living in a third-world country. They have few options available to them so they find an alternate way to make money to support themselves and their families. But on the flip side, they’re scamming innocent people out of their hard-earned dollars. These aren’t multi-millionaires, these are middle or lower class people who are gullible enough to fall for these elaborately crafted schemes.

“We use what we have to get what we want.”

There are no in-depth interviews and we don’t learn their names. The film holds the viewer at arms-length which is necessary I believe to keep us in as neutral a space as possible. Some might find the film and its subject matter off-putting but I found it fascinating.

Beyond the internet scams, we also get a look at the religious/cultural practices and home life of Ghanians. 

Sakawa is a compelling documentary that offers insight into the little-known world of internet scammers of Ghana, Africa. 

Sakawa had its North American premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Visions series.

SXSW: Qualified

“All I want to do is race cars.”

Janet Guthrie

Adventurous and determined, Janet Guthrie is a trailblazer in the auto racing world. As the first woman to race the Indy 500, she faced an uphill battle to break the gender barrier in the late 1970s. Her career was plagued with setbacks; from mechanical failures, to lack of sponsorship that kept her out of races, to injuries and the biggest of all was the engrained belief that women could not physically be race car drivers.

Guthrie is a fearless woman. At a very young age, she fell in love with flying and didn’t hesitate to jump out of a plane for her first skydive. But realizing that female pilots were banned from both the airline industry and the military, she decided to become an aeronautical engineer instead. This led to her discovery of sports cars, a fascination with their design and her infatuation with the sport. Developing her skills as a driver, Guthrie loved speed and racing took over her life. But was auto racing ready for a woman driver?

“What is this nonsense that women can’t do it?”

Janet Guthrie on women race car drivers

Director Jenna Ricker’s Qualified follows the career of Janet Guthrie and all its ups and downs. And there were a lot of downs. The documentary consists of mostly archival footage of Guthrie’s races and television interviews. Guthrie herself and the various drivers and mechanics speak at length about her qualifying attempts, her races and all the struggles she endured in her career. I found Guthrie’s story both frustrating and awe-inspiring. I was angry at society for holding her back whether it was a sponsor not wanting to risk being associated with a woman driver or other people in the industry believing the sport was too dangerous for women. One pivotal moment show the dilemma of whether to call out “gentleman start your engines” when both Guthrie and the mechanic starting her engine were women.

As a woman who has experienced many career setbacks, I was really motivated by Guthrie’s tenacity. She explored every option, fought for every qualifier and race and only gave up when no options were left for her. If it hadn’t been for her tenacity, she might not have opened the doors necessary to pursue her dream. That’s a powerful message for any woman of any age.

Qualified takes its viewers on an emotional journey. I’m so grateful for Ricker’s film and the opportunity to learn about Guthrie’s story. I’ll have to admit, I choked up a few times. I can’t emphasize how important it is for a woman to have a strong female role model, even if she’s in a completely different field from your own. It can be life changing.

Qualified had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.

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