Aaron Hillis graciously forwarded a screener DVD of Fish Kill Flea ("Fish")—co-created with Brian Cassidy and Jennifer Loeber—when I wanted to participate in its SXSW premiere by chiming in from San Francisco, which I thought would be good, wholesome Internet fun. Unfortunately, the screener froze in my DVD player and I wasn't able to do that; but, Aaron has since sent a working replacement and now I'm truly pleased to shout out from the West Coast on their upcoming East Coast Saturday night premiere at Brooklyn's Rooftop Films, maintaining a truly bi-coastal texture to the film's critical response.
As the film's website details, prior to collaborating on their first feature, Brooklyn-based friends Brian Cassidy, Aaron Hillis and Jennifer Loeber had each fallen into filmmaking from divergent paths.
Originally from the Poughkeepsie area near where Fish Kill Flea was shot, Brian has worked as a photographer for such commercial and editorial clients as The United Nations, UNICEF, and Colors Magazine. He was a winner of the Photo District News Photo Annual, and recently earned his MFA from the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Two short films he co-directed with Melanie Shatzky, God Provides and The Delaware Project, premiered at the 2007 Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals.
Aaron is a freelance writer and film critic whose work can be read regularly in the pages of The Village Voice, plus online at Premiere, IFC News and The Reeler. As a passionate cinephile, he is also partner to Benten Films, a new DVD distribution label that will launch its first release, Joe Swanberg's LOL, on August 28th, 2007.
Jennifer received her BFA in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art, and her collections have been seen all over the U.S., including in F-Stop, File Magazine, and Humble Media's Group-Show, who exhibited her work in NYC in March 2007. While pursuing fine art projects, she has also worked as a photo editor and director at several national fashion magazines, including Allure, Glamour and Instyle.
The filmmakers of Fish Kill Flea describe their documentary as "A Eulogy for Shoppers by Shoppers." Aaron Hillis synopsizes at IMdb: "Once thriving, a dead mall in upstate New York is now home to a ragtag flea market, living proof that the American Dream is in perpetual decay. Blending vérité with a stylized wit, this heartbreaking portrait raises questions about our disposable culture through the unfiltered lives of its eccentric community." I caught up with all three of them earlier this week by phone.
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Michael Guillén: I read a lot about your reactions to the film's premiere at South by Southwest, how are you three feeling about your Brooklyn premiere?
Aaron Hillis: We're all really excited! We all live and work in Brooklyn so getting the chance to show it to all of our friends and family and colleagues and people who weren't able to see it at some of the other festivals we've been at is nothing less than thrilling.
Brian Cassidy: Rooftop was also a really nice place for us to premiere because, as you know, the film deals with appropriating space and that's what Rooftop does by showing films on the roofs of buildings, so it seemed like an appropriate match; we're happy about that.
Guillén: The photograph you have announcing the premiere looks like fun, all the people up on the rooftop like that; it looks like a modern-day version of the drive-in.
Jennifer Loeber: [Chuckles.] You could put it like that….
Guillén: Fish is an eccentric pearl of a film; odd in shape with an idiosyncratic sheen. I don't mean to undo the seamless braid the three of you have achieved in co-directing this film; but, I am curious about the structure of your collaboration. Can you talk about the genesis of the film, how the three of you decided to embark on the project, and how you went about divvying up duties?
Hillis: Well, we'll start with Brian since he's actually from that area.
Cassidy: For a number of years I had been photographing—my background is in still photography—and the Dutchess Mall in Fishkill is actually the mall that I used to shop at as a child. As I grew older and started to realize that this mall was dying before my eyes, once it really did die and this flea market took it over, I became interested in this culture that took over the space. For a number of years I was going there and spending time with people, photographing and making pictures, but still photography never quite [captured] the kind of storytelling that I thought could come out of this place. It wasn't until a few years later [when] I had moved out of the area and met Aaron and Jennifer—the three of us became fast friends—and we went upstate for a weekend and I showed them this great place, [that] then and there we decided we would make a film about it.
Hillis: Adding to that, while we were there—which was the first time for Jennifer and myself—we found out right then and there that they were finally going to raze the mall and turn it into yet another Home Depot. With a deadline limitation, it made the idea of making the film—since none of us had done something like that—a little more immediate.
Cassidy: As far as designating tasks and duties, we were improvising roles as we went. Often there were two cameras going at once. One of us would be at the far end of the flea market and then one would be at the other end and we would meet in the middle and see what we got. I was the editor on the film but then we would get together and I would start to select from the material and we would all see what worked best for the story we wanted to tell.
Guillén: Definitely the editing was how you achieved the narrative stream of the film. James Renovitch at The Austin Chronicle characterized the editing as "deft" and I enjoyed your insightful Austinist interview where the "thumbwrestling" regarding the editing was brought up. So Brian was given full rein?
Hillis: Brian was finishing up his Masters Degree at the School of Visual Arts and—since it was a collaboration—it made sense for him to be the sole editor so that he had a project that he could call his own. He definitely did all the grunt work and would come up with the initial edits that we would all look at and see what worked and didn't. So it was still a collaborative effort but Brian was definitely the sole editor.
Guillén: Roughly then, about how many hours of footage did you have to work with?
Cassidy: When all was said and done there was about, I'd say, 50 hours worth of footage, maybe 45-50 hours that we had to whittle down. We knew there was the story arc, the trajectory of what was going to happen with this space, where it was going to end up being or not being, but besides that it was really about responding intuitively to the material we had collected. We were really collectors, collecting moments, collecting interviews, collecting images and sounds. In that regard it was really about intuitively shaping and making a musicality to it. It was almost like creating a piece of music.
Hillis: Might I add in all that collecting, it was at bargain discount prices.
Guillén: [Laughs.] Fish kept reminding me of a recent conversation I had with documentarian Heddy Honigman regarding her latest film Forever, which screened at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, where she expressed a similar methodology to shaping her film. Her film is about the culture in a Parisian cemetery and Heddy talked about an intuitive process of waiting for the stories to come to her. Let's talk a little bit more about your methodology: were you randomly filming? Did you pick up threads early on that you then actively pursued?
Loeber: When we first started filming, we were randomly capturing images as we walked around. But within a week or two of shooting, we started becoming friendly with the vendors and it became more of almost a family atmosphere. People were getting to know us and they were giving us interviews that felt more like conversations. We didn't start out with any great narrative threads but we worked our way into it as we went.
Cassidy: And I would just add that—though we did take an observant approach to what we were seeing—we all as filmmakers acknowledged that we had our own story to tell as well and that the best moments were ones that were an intersection between our own sensibility, our own sensitivities to what we were seeing, and what actually existed.
Guillén: Aaron, when you were being interviewed by Matthew Odam for Austin360, you characterized the directorial approach to Fish as "unconventional." Can you amplify on what you meant by that? What is it that is unconventional in how you've approached this subject?
Hillis: Sure, we didn't know what we were doing. [Laughter.] We all had ideas about aesthetics and ideas of how a film should be made that came from, obviously, a bit of naiveté. The learning curve was steep. Because we also had three people who didn't have clearly-defined roles—as we ventured on we didn't—we found ourselves doing a little bit of everything and wearing a lot of hats. Sometimes we would be doing interviews. Sometimes we'd be off shooting something on our own. Sometimes we were assisting one of the other people. I don't know if that's the right or wrong way to make a film but it seemed right to us considering it's a documentary, we didn't have a script, all we had was a lot of content in front of us waiting to be shot, and trying to come up with interesting ways to present it rather than just turning on a camera and letting it run.
Guillén: One of the things I immediately appreciated were the composed static tone poems that served as interstitials between the conversations between yourselves and the vendors. I took that as direct influence from the fact that two of the filmmakers were still photographers?
Loeber: That's definitely because Brian and I come from photography backgrounds. Our eyes as photographers are somewhat similar so the meeting of minds when it came to that kind of shooting—static images, holding things so that people could sort of swim around in—came naturally in a way.
Cassidy: I would say also, as the editor of the film, but also as one of the—I guess you would say—cinematographers, the material that Aaron, Jennifer and I came back with, as an editor it was easier to wade through than I imagined. Many documentaries are made in this way where the filmmakers go out and just shoot and shoot and shoot and where it's not uncommon to see as much as 300-400 hours of footage for a 72-minute film. We didn't really take that approach. We made critical decisions in the moment as far as being visual storytellers. With that regard, even though maybe the overarching structure needed to be found in the editing, a lot of the moments were made in the marketplace.
Guillén: It felt that way. There was a compositional integrity from the get-go. The look of the images were attractively composed. Who caught the image of the doll in the tree?
Cassidy: That was me.
Guillén: I liked that image a lot.
Cassidy: Thank you.
Guillén: Fish is something of a cinematic close-up on the shifting face of modernity and how modernity defines itself through exclusionary practices of progress. There's no gentle way to gauze the lens when capturing that grinning grimace. In other words, modernity is essentially clothed in whatever is the current fashion of commerce. At one stage capitalism colonized regional areas of the United States through the shopping mall, demeaning the value of small town mom & pop businesses. Joni Mitchell has keenly observed how "history falls to parking lots and shopping malls" but she hasn't yet penned the tune where the malls themselves are undone by the colonial practices of internet commerce and transnational capitalism. Can you speak to those shifting trends and why you felt them important to profile with what Andrew Grant (Filmbrain) has described as "an almost Marxist gaze"?
[Jennifer laughs and there's an almost palpable stunned silence.]
Guillén: Does that make sense?
Hillis: Yeah. Give us a minute I guess. [Laughter.] I don't even know where to begin. The thing is, while there are a lot of macro and micro ideas within this portrait, obviously this mall can't represent all of America; but, it does show the contrast between past, present and future, which plays right into what you're talking about modernity and how it's measured. Once this mall was a thriving thing. Back in the '70s it was the new hotness and everybody in the town was excited to go to this place; the mall itself was an event. Leading up to its demise and the flea market then being able to reinterpret unused space into something practical and even positive, obviously there's a lot of decay. You can still see the past within that. There, just that measurement shows the contrast between past and present. The future … I guess if you're going to get into online retailers taking the business away from malls, the only tangible thing I see that makes sense within something like this is that there isn't as much socializing. One of the great things we liked about the mall and even the flea market is there was a sense of community there and, although there are online communities, this was something different because this was a community that was meshed and went hand-in-hand with commerce, with capitalism. Once you have that in an online forum, that's certainly lost.
Cassidy: They're faceless.
Hillis: They are faceless. What is considered a community then? Seeing what other people recommend for their shopping habits? No one's going to stop going to stores. No one's going to stop going to malls. People still need human interaction. I don't think we're all going to get plugged into the Matrix anytime soon even though some of us here do have crippling Internet addictions.
Cassidy: May I just step in for a moment? This idea of community is an aspect of the film but at the same time I don't think it's the entire film. In some ways there's a very grim side to this portrait. People shuffle through this mall at a slow pace and there's another side to it that's a bit like looking at a black lung, a smoker's lung. It still works, it still breathes, but it's congested and it's failing. That in and of itself is the tonality and the texture with which we wanted to infuse this portrait. The community is one side of it but at the same time—if we were to have made a film that was really rallying around community—we would have found a place that was in some ways far more [vital]. We would have gone to a farmers market or something that was far more kinetic. That community aspect is definitely a part of our film but it's only one part of our film.
Guillén: Interesting. Glenn Kenny, when he wrote about the film for Premiere, spoke about its "early-Errol-Morris feel for American weirdness." You've handled that "weirdness"—as applied to the sociality of the community that you've profiled—with compassionate, nonintrusive and nonjudgmental gloves. I have to praise you for that. But let's put a respectfully-gloved finger on that "weirdness", if we may. You've described the flea market phenomenon as something of a "black lung", Brian, and I have to be honest and say I had some issues with some of the personages in this flea market community. I felt the guy who was selling the Nazi memorabilia was borderline racist and there was just some overall wackiness to these people that I found somewhat uncomfortable. That's why I was surprised, and actually delighted, when one of the vendors in your film lambasted a "flea market snob" like me. Her comment made me suddenly aware that I was judging these people whereas you were not.
Cassidy: She pulled the rug out from under you.
Guillén: Yes! Merle Bertrand at Film Threat likewise admitted that your compassionate non-judgment "is something that most viewers of Fish Kill Flea … probably can't claim." As you were going through all of this collected material, how did you go about finalizing your "cast of characters"? How did you choose your talking heads? Why did these particular testimonials pronounce themselves to you?
Hillis: The easy thing about putting together any of the footage was that—on the surface—it all takes place at this flea market, it's all within this mall, it's all self-contained within this community; but, we realized that what we lacked in narrative momentum, we would have to come up with something to push it along, some sort of momentum. One of the things we used as momentum were its ideas: the idea of preservation, of community and commerce, and nostalgia, everything that comes out of how you want to interpret this film. We looked at things one at a time and tried to weigh the balance—how interesting is this? Compared to how much does it say?—not just fascinating moments because we have tons of that still on the cutting room floor. What is going to speak to the other segments to tell a story? To show a larger portrait than just this finite thing?
Guillén: What came across to me was their poignant struggle to survive and to maintain this situation. I applied a biological metaphor to their experience. It struck me as wholly symbiotic—these people, this situation—so intimately connected to even exist as something of an ecological niche. What were you trying to say about diversity and its importance?
Loeber: I don't know if we were really focused on diversity per se.
Hillis: As much as not judging. I think that's really the key.
Cassidy: There's no easy answer. The thing is, there are no pat answers here. You feel for a group of people who this space means something to but perhaps you question some of their behavior and some of their own sentiments. There are no easy answers.
Guillén: That's exactly what I would say you have achieved with the film: I ended up wondering and caring about these people and what happened to them, once I became aware that their livelihood, this experience, was dying for them. You did a good job of presenting that.
Cassidy: Thank you. A lot of documentaries do render people either one way or the other and they show how someone transforms themselves over the course of the 90 minutes or whatever and we simply wanted to show people as they are or as we perceived them and put it on the viewer to complete. If we did our job, then people will have different opinions depending on where they're standing, perhaps even watching the film 10 years from now. That's what we wanted to achieve.
Hillis: That would be so cool if people were still watching our film 10 years from now.
Guillén: I think they will be! It's a historical document and—part of the reason it has an important historicity—is the archival material that you gathered from, I assume, the vaults of the Poughkeepsie Journal? What were your adventures in combing those vaults?
Cassidy: That was a lot of fun.
Hillis: Brian used to work as a photographer there so he knew a lot of people there still and they gave us full rein to sift through their dusty archives. Some of these things had not seen the light of day [in decades]. Our allergies were kicking up a storm. But we found a section of catalog bins that had photographs and things from it that made us instantly nostalgic, which seems normal for Brian but I didn't even know this place and I was nostalgic. That also speaks to some of the things we had in the film as far as eulogizing mall culture itself because there's so much overlap between what this mall used to be; it's a uniquely American thing.
Guillén: All that optimism, all that ribbon cutting, comes across as you say nostalgic and profoundly sad.
Cassidy: There were things that didn't make it into the film for one reason or another. We came across pictures of Mickey Mantle when he came and did an autograph session at the mall.
Hillis: Someone got married in the fairway of the mall.
Cassidy: There was just so much, as you say, optimism. Celebrities would come to these shopping malls and attend grand openings. There's a sadness in the demise of that, which we wanted to show through the archival pictures.
Loeber: And then there's also a little bit of the universality about the photos. Almost everyone in America at least can relate to those photos. I—being someone who grew up in New York City that didn't have a lot of malls—could even completely relate in a nostalgic way to those kinds of images. That's also a thread to the film that speaks to just about anyone watching it.
Guillén: One final question here. I was impressed with your soundtrack. You have a lot going on there and it adds a textured layer to the film. You've included a song played on an organ made of stalagmites, I understand? And another sung by an Egyptian choir of 4,000 voices? A couple of blues pieces. Could you talk a little bit about how you structured the score?
Cassidy: Sure. We wanted to find—I guess "score" would be the word—sound music that would be music that resonated but was marginally made by nonprofessionals. This doesn't include all of the pieces but the majority of the music is made by people who were trying things, experimenting and tinkering, and creating something that resonates and has a haunting amateur poignancy to them. We just felt that spoke to not only our subject matter but also our approach as filmmakers. This is not about a high gloss experience so there's a rawness to the music that we wanted to infuse the images with.
Guillén: Clearly, one of the great achievements of this project is that the three of you have remained friends.
Hillis: [Laughter.] BINGO!
Guillén: Do you imagine that you will be making another film together? Any future plans?
Hillis: We're all definitely going to be making films. Brian has actually been making short films with Melanie Shatzky and they're going to continue making those. Jennifer and I are going to do another documentary after this one. We're all making films. If you want to then call it a collective or whatever—because, obviously, we're here to support one another—feel free.
Cassidy: It's also dependent on the story. Everything has to do with if a story comes across, we'll join forces again.
Hillis: I think the three of us specifically are going to make another film in 2016.
Guillén: [Laughter.] That's wonderful to hear. It's great that you collaborated on this one and I congratulate you and I hope you have a lot of fun at your New York premiere. Thank you for taking the time.
Cassidy: Thank you.
Hillis: Take care, Michael.
Cross-published at Twitch.