As digital projection becomes the norm and the major studios move closer to completely phasing out 35mm distribution, art houses and repertory cinemas face the difficult task of making the costly switchover to digital. The standards stipulated by the Digital Cinema Initiatives require an upgrade to systems that can cost between $50,000 to $100,000 per screen. As fewer films release on 35mm, art and ‘smart’ house exhibitors must choose whether to invest in digital equipment or to look for alternative exhibition models. David Bordwell reports on the crisis of the art house and some of these possible alternatives emerging from the 2012 Art House Convergence, an annual meeting of theater owners and programmers as well as delegates from distribution companies and equipment manufacturers. The article is the fifth installment of a series on transitions to digital projection. Read on his blog, Observations on Film Art.
The other night, I stood beneath fluroescent lights at my local Stop & Shop, looking for a dinner that I could heat up at home. I looked through the Deli section, passing by the various canned soups and chowders. It all looked bland – pieces of food churned up by machines. I was about to head to the frozen foods aisle, when I saw a familiar face printed on a packet of Grab-n-Go soup: pursed lips, a honk nose, hawk eyes beneath a stern brow, and a crown of jet-black hair. His name is Al Yeganeh, and from the look of him you can tell he’s passionate about his soup. In 2005, he launched a restaurant chain and retail line of gourmet Heat’N'Serve soups. His company is named The Original Soup Man, but you probably know him by another alias: The Soup Nazi.
On November 2, 1995, NBC aired the 116th episode of the hit sitcom Seinfeld. The episode was titled “The Soup Nazi” after the nickname of the titular character performed by actor Larry Thomas. Thomas plays a militant soup chef, who demands that his customers follow a strict code of conduct when ordering from his hole-in-the-wall soup stand. When they fail to follow the highly regimented procedures, the Soup Nazi hands them back their money, and yells, “No Soup for You!”
The character was based on Yeganeh himself, who founded the soup shop Soup Kitchen International in 1984. Located on 259 West 55th Street in Manhattan, the kitchen quickly became notorious both for the quality of its soup and the strict rules enforced by its owner:
1. Pick the soup you want
2. Have your money ready
3. Move to the extreme left after ordering
For Yeganeh, these procedures were necessary in order to ensure the fastest and most efficient service possible. Given the amount of customers that needed to be processed, they were a necessary component of Yeganeh’s strange but effective methodology, not outrageous infringements on his patrons’ liberties.
Al’s shop closed in March 2005. Unfortunately I never had the chance to see the real thing, but I the Seinfeld show and the testimonies of many who frequented it help to imagine what it was like.
* * *
A few blocks south of Central Park, you would come upon a line. Rain or shine, it would stretch to the end of the sidewalk, perhaps twisting around the corner. You might say to yourself, “Ah, soup isn’t worth the wait,” but the line is moving fast, the soup smells good wafting around the corner, and after all, these people aren’t waiting around for nothing – this is the world renowned Al Yeganeh, the guy who gets higher Zagat ratings than most fine-dining restaurants in Manhattan. As you got closer to the stand, you would see Al performing his routine. Hunched over the register, working so fast that it’s like his fingers are programmed into the machine, flying through each transaction in five seconds or less. He could deftly scoop a ladel full of soup and unload it into a cup, each time getting just the right proportion of solid ingredients to broth without fail. Double-cupping the soup to retain warmth, he would pass the soup to his assistants, who would package it in a paper bag along with the rest of the meal.
Near the front of the line people might be exchanging bills frantically so that they would have exact change. Conversation would suddenly cut out. Al doesn’t appreciate small talk; don’t get distracted. Next up. There’d be a yellow-spray-painted diagram of an arrow pointing to two illustrated feet. That’s where Al wants you to stand after you’ve ordered.
You give your order, and move to the left. But an old woman, oblivious to the significance of this ritual, stands in your way. Now you’re too close to the register for Al to continue taking orders. He looks up, glaring. “Move to the left!” The line grows completely silent. “The far left!” You and the woman would shuffle over ashamed, cowering like prey. He would size you up one more time, and express his satisfaction by yelling, “Next!”
Finally, an assistant would pass you a brown bag. And opening it up, you would take a big whiff. “Mmmmm, Jumbalaya!”
Yeganeh’s soups were renowned for their taste, but his questionable behavior towards customers only added to his notoriety. As word spread, members of the Seinfeld cast tried the place out, and passed the word onto the show’s writers. The comedic material was already there – the character, the soup stand, the frightened customers. It was just a matter of incorporating it all into a storyline.
Of course, when they sketched out The Soup Nazi, both Larry Thomas and the writing team exaggerated Yeganeh’s behavior. They made him meaner and more volatile than he really is, thickened his accent, and crafted a story where his mistreatment of customers gets the better of him. The stakes had to be raised for TV, and subsequently they distorted the public’s perception of Soup Kitchen International. It was hard for customers, both new and old, to stand in line without thinking of Yeganeh’s mythical caricature. They wanted him to play into the character, to curse, to pound his fists, and to let them take his picture. Sometimes they would even break his rules deliberately, hoping that he would yell the infamous line: “No soup for you!”
For this, Yegenah blames Jerry Seinfeld, whom he calls, “Jerry the Clown.” He finds the “Soup Nazi” nickname insulting and forbids his customers from using the “N” word in his shop. One day, while taking a break from shooting an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and a few of the show’s writers stopped by Soup Kitchen International for a quick bowl of soup. When Al recognized Jerry, he began an angry tirade. The episode had “ruined his life,” he said. Eventually, Al did stumbled into his scripted alter ego, screaming, “No Soup For You!” and demanding that Jerry leave the premises.
What I find so interesting about this account of their encounter is that Al, despite his efforts to distance himself from the image of himself portrayed on Seinfeld, ended up resorting to the episode’s very catchphrase. When confronted with a real life version of the events on the show, it’s as if he couldn’t resist the pull of his own characterization. This seems to be a recurring conflict figuring again and again in Yeganeh’s career. He has earned the reputation of master soup chef and inherited the status of pop culture anomaly, and it can be difficult to negotiate this dual mantel. While the fame may be tempting, it threatens to ensnare Al in a self-referential loop, and endless caricature of himself. It’s interesting to notice that the title of his franchise, “The Original Soup Man,” disavows the Soup Nazi character at the same time it references the TV show through its claim of originality. If Al can stake out a ground where he can contest the Soup Nazi, perhaps he can regain some control over how the public sees him. Faced with the media attention and the growing notoriety surrounding his fictionalized persona, Al looked to stick to his guns. He would keep making his soup. Maybe be could even harness all that force that had built up behind the Soup Nazi and redirect it back towards himself, the basis for the character.
* * *
In March of 2005, Yeganeh closed his shop. When you call Soup Kitchen International to make an order, you hear his voice, a ghost on the line: “This is Al Yeganeh, Soup Man. I’m not operating in my store on 55th St any longer. I left United States on March 11, 2005. I sold North America rights to this company by name of Original Soup Man. Any inquiry, please contact them directly: http://www.originalsoupman.com. Thank you.” From listening to this recording, it might seem like he was fleeing from something, but in actuality, Yeganeh quickly became immersed in overseeing the development of the franchise. The company was his new project and just like one of his soups, he planned to get all the ingredients just right.
To start, Yeganeh has done everything he can to involve himself in the company. What he doesn’t want is to step back and have someone tell him they’ll take care of it. During development, he’d wake up everyday in the early morning hours to drive to the soup plant in Piscataway, New Jersey, where he would test the soups and oversee the operations in the plant. When he first arrived at the plant, he took time to observe the employees at work. From a raised platform, he perched like a hawk, peering down at the activity on the floor. The workers would occasionally relax, working with the radio on or stepping out for a phone call. Disapproving, Al descended on the employees. To make his point, he walked up to the stereo and snipped the speaker wires with a pair of scissors – there would be no activity at his plant other than soupmaking!
Yeganeh had grand aspirations for the franchise: 1,000 locations in the U.S. within five to seven years. Most franchises would be in malls, airports, strip malls, and other high-traffic spots, but supermarket chains like Giant Food Stores, with over 260 locations in six states, would carry Yeganeh’s soups in pouch form. Franchises pay $30,000 for the right to sell his soup, and he’d take a 20% cut from each business. In the end, he’d be looking at making 5 million in royalties. However, Yeganeh claimed he’s not in this for the money: “I’m already rich. I was rich before Seinfeld.” Then why close your old shop to launch a multi-million dollar franchise corporation? Yeganeh would like us to simply chalk it up to his love for soup, but there’s also greater power to be exercised in developing his own product, and image, on a more massive scale.
Within the corporation, Yeganeh has exerted even tighter control over business communications, insisting that all niceties are removed from letters to prospective franchisees. No extraneous formalities like “dear,” “thank you,” or “we look forward to hearing from you soon!” are necessary; with Al, it’s strictly business.
Yeganeh does not enforce his rigid service style onto the franchisees themselves, but he does screen each potential location owner to ensure that they know about food and hygiene and are “passionate about soup quality.” Most importantly for Yeganeh however, is that his franchise owners do not attempt to play up the Soup Nazi image. Once again, he has forbidden the utterance of the “N” word and any other reference to the Seinfeld episode.
Some of the company’s investors and officials don’t share Yeganeh’s line of thinking; they see the connection with the Seinfeld episode as a marketing tool and potential source of revenue. “He’s a total character and characters sell,” said the chairman and acting CEO of the new venture, John Bello, who has also thrown six figures into the company. Of course, this is precisely what Yeganeh is trying to resist. He doesn’t want to be a character. There’s a sense that he’s trying to recapture his image by launching this franchise – a self-made man, a real soup chef. He will no longer be the Soup Nazi toiling away in the small soup stand as depicted in the Seinfeld episode. For Al, corporate success on his own terms means that he will have finally conquered the Soup Nazi. The quality of his soup will win out over the notoriety of his image.
The franchise is now in its fourth year, and has never gotten off the ground and mobilized into the nationwide empire Yeganeh thought it would be. Of the forty franchises that were opened in the first two years, almost half have closed, citing high prices and poor company support as the major reasons they failed. These may just be the growing pains of a franchise restaurant trying to get underway, but with four years gone since its inception, perhaps its time for The Original SoupMan to swallow his pride and break out the marketing tricks. A reminder of the Soup Nazi, might give customers that extra push to spend a few dollars more than they’re accustomed, just to get a taste of the pop culture legend.
* * *
Meanwhile, the factory in Piscataway is still pumping out soups, shipped in packet form, with Al’s face stamped on the packaging. They arrive at supermarkets like my local Stop & Shop, and are shelved in the deli section one by one, where they sit under fluorescent lights, waiting for a consumer like me, to come by and consider the available options. What kind of message is the Original Soup Man trying to plant in my head? What does he want me to think?
Perhaps I’m not meant to think anything at all. The Original SoupMan “sets the standard” so this must be the best soup on the shelf. There’s factory assurance to make sure there’s no room for error or variation. The soup fulfills its own formula, and the end product is my guaranteed satisfaction. All that’s left to be done is for me to grab one and move on to the freezer aisle. But when I stood in the deli section aisle that night, something brought this formula to a halt. I couldn’t help but think that the face on that packet of soup looked familiar. His stern face, proudly and defiantly standing for his soup creation, seemed to remind me of a character I’d seen on TV. “I wonder who that is,” I thought.I stood there for a bit longer, contemplating the half-formed thought hung on my mind, but finally dismissed it, walking to the freezer aisle for a Tombstone Pizza instead.
On 259 West 55th Street in Manhattan, sits a Patel newsstand. There used to be a soup stand there. People would stand in the rain, waiting for a steaming cup, double-cupped to retain the warmth. You could see Al there, toiling away, flying through orders, barking at his assistants, ladeling soup like a madman, passion and excitement flaming in his eyes. Now you can see his face printed on a soup packet on a shelf at your local grocer. “Nothing else compares.”
This article was originally written in Spring 2009.
Relevant Source Material:
“About Us: Company History.” 2005. Original Soup Man. http://www.originalsoupman.com 1 Mar 2009.
Arment, Marco. “Al’s Soup Kitchen International.” Marco.org 4 Mar 2009. http://articles.marco.org/23
Caruso, David B. “Soup Nazi Furor: Stock Market Crash.” 13 September 2007. New York Post. 6 Mar 2009. http://www.nypost.com/seven/09132007/news/nationalnews/soup_nazi_furor.htm
Sander, Ernest. “About Us: Company History.” Business Opportunities Journal. 13 Mar 2009 <http://www.boj.com/articles/franchise/soup_nazi.htm>.
“Seinfeld: The Soup Nazi.” 2009. TV.com http://www.tv.com/the-soup-nazi/episode/235. March 3 2009.
This list of vintage ads courtesy of BoredPanda.com will be sure to make you laugh, groan and realize how fortunate we are to have ads like these today:
Published originally in the January 2012 issue of NewEnglandFilm.com
The Magic Lantern Cinema, an experimental film and video series, will begin a new season next month with a screening in the Providence French Film Festival. Founded in 2004 and held at the Cable Car Cinema, a charming singleplex theater nestled at the foot of College Hill in Providence, the curated series screens an eclectic offering of rarely seen film and video works. Many of the films projected at the Magic Lantern are striking for their rigor, often eschewing plot, character, dialogue and other conventions for a more experimental engagement with the medium that blurs the line between fine art and cinema. The average filmgoer may be taken aback by this kind of filmmaking initially, but the open-minded will be pleasantly surprised by the invigorating experience afforded by these films, a refreshing respite from standard Hollywood fare.
The fall 2011 season of The Magic Lantern Cinema closed with an installment entitled The Lost And Found Show, a line-up of short films that explore the practice of using found-footage and archival materials in original works. The program was curated by Paige Sarlin and Josh Guilford, two graduate students in Brown University’s Modern Culture & Media department, and Colleen Doyle, the department’s film archivist. Although the Magic Lantern has been co-curated in the past, the three agreed this was the first time a team has truly worked together throughout the entire process of putting on the show. The spirit of collaboration shows – this group of films provided a dynamic and varied take on what can be a clichéd strategy in experimental and avant-garde cinema.
In gathering films for the show, the team intended to present an alternate perspective of found footage and meditate on the undercurrent of loss implicit to the medium. “We didn’t want to do something that was typical to the way this genre is represented so we started thinking about different ways to twist that theme,” Guilford said. “And we started thinking about how found footage really depends on loss…and [tried to] find different films that would speak to aspects of loss, would be exploring different iterations of loss or that are about finding lost objects.”
Sarlin began the process by proposing a few preliminary films, and then Guilford and Doyle added to the list, bringing additional titles into consideration. Drawing on their expertise in avant-garde cinema and the catalogs of independent film collections, the team arrived at a survey of found footage practices that aims to be insightful rather than comprehensive.
One of Sarlin’s initial contributions, “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal,” a short film by Matt McCormick, set the tone early in the screening. A tongue-in-cheek homage to art criticism, the film memorializes lost graffiti art as it subtly critiques the bureaucracies that censor and remove it. One particularly humorous sequence observes two city employees as they decide which color of dreary off-white to use to paint over the graffiti tags that cover a concrete wall. The application of the paint is careless and sloppy and it’s hard not to wonder whether the wall will look any better covered with ugly blotches of ‘Greek Villa’ ‘Frosty White’ or ‘Dove.’ Yet the film is not merely a political treatise against government control. By playfully comparing the geometric blocks produced by the graffiti removers to the minimalist creations of famous 20th century artists like Rothko, Rauschenberg, and Malevich, the film turns the tables on artistic discourse, questioning our agency over artistic creation as well as the institutions that seek to define art and designate artistic spaces. The ghostly presence of the original graffiti provides an eerie commentary that is both comical and somber.
The theme of reappropriated lost items figured throughout the other films as well. Take, for instance, Bruce Checefesky’s “Béla,” based on an experimental film scenario by Hungarian Dada artist György Gerö, which he scripted but never filmed. “[Checefesky] takes early Eastern European works and scripts that haven’t actually been turned into films or that were never realized as films and he tries to create them,” Doyle explained of her selection. The film feels like a trip into long-dormant recesses of an artist’s imagination, and ultimately, the uncanny aura of the resurrected ideas elicits greater fascination than the actual content of those ideas themselves.
Some of the films were more personal, featuring portraits of lost loved ones, like Stan Brakhage’s elegy to the corpse of the family dog in “Sirius Remembered,” or an artist’s rediscovery of their own work as in Anastasia Congdon’s “Table Studies.” “George,” a portrait of the late filmmaker George Kuchar by Henry Hills, is both of these. Guilford explained his fascination with this found-footage piece: “George Kuchar recently passed away, but it was also a film that Henry Hills had shot, lost when he moved, and then rediscovered and reedited. So I was interested in seeing how that final portrait came out.” The film simply observes Kuchar as he drinks and smokes at a bar, but the effect of the images extends beyond the literal elements of the composition. A dense thicket of pulsating light, superimpositions and smoke, the portrait feels more like an intricately woven veil, a reminder of how time can refigure our impressions of loved ones and erode the clarity of our memories.
This motif — the old relic transformed through rediscovery — underscored the entirety of the show. However, rather than build out a definitive thesis or hone in on a particular topic, period or filmmaker, the intention of a Magic Lantern screening is to pull out an idea and let it unfold in as many ways as possible. To this end, the series typically screens a medley of short films rather than longer features or retrospectives of a singular filmmaker. The multiple impressions gleaned from the films are meant to be diffuse as if each film were refracted through the others, forming a kind of mosaic.
Even the experience of the screening itself is marked by its looseness and relaxed atmosphere. Sarlin remarked that she and her co-curators find a certain roughness to the show attractive. “There’s never been a seamless, seamless show, but we kind of like that,” she said. “Only recently has Colleen started to make up reels so that it’s one single reel, but generally what we’ve always shown is single pieces by themselves so we would have to rethread the projector so it gives a lot of time between films and it’s been really nice because people talk, they talk about the piece or whatever they want to.” The social ambience harkens back to the early days of cinema when watching movies was a more communal, participatory event.
There are plenty of opportunities for chatter throughout the screening, as it pauses intermittently to migrate between various formats, ranging from grainy VHS tapes to pristine 35mm prints. Some are old and can be temperamental. Produced well beyond the periphery of the commercial filmmaking industry, these films probably aren’t available at your local rental store or on your Netflix cue. No doubt, they can be difficult to track down in time for the event. To obtain the films, the curators call upon a network of boutique distribution houses and archives, including Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, Filmmakers’ Co-Op in New York, Video Data Bank in Chicago, and Light Cone in Paris.
The Magic Lantern is one of the few experimental film screenings that pays the artists, four dollars per minute, to show their work. It may not be much, but founder Ben Russell believed this was an important contribution for an art form that has little commercial viability. To make this possible, the screening relies on funding from several grants and donors including its primary funder, The Malcom S. Forbes Center for Modern Culture & Media at Brown University. However, the screening also brings in money through admissions prices and sales of posters, which are made by a different local artist specially for each screening. Established by Ben Russell as a way of diverting money away from the grant organizations and into the Providence printing community, the Magic Lantern’s poster project may be its most recognizable feature. In addition to supplementing ticket sales, the posters provide the most significant outreach into the community. “I think it’s our main source of advertising for the show,” Doyle said. “I think it’s what draws people in and what we rely on most to get a crowd and I think it’s nice to have the collaboration with local artists. I think that the posters themselves and the relationship they have to the shows and the interpretation of the theme within the image gets people excited even before they know anything about the content of the show.”
In many ways, the Magic Lantern is inseparable from the Providence community that sustains it. Although the curators have experimented with traveling screenings to Chicago and New York, as well as outdoor and ad hoc venues in the city, the Cable Car Cinema still remains its home. “The whole point was to do this micro-cinema kind of screening, but to do it in an actual, operating movie theater…It’s a full-on cinema, it’s not makeshift in any way, [but it’s also] a kind of mom-and-pop shop. [This] was a big part of wanting to be able to screen in a context where it looks great and it’s really official.”
Conclusion: This kind of treatment is rare for experimental film, which is often relegated to gallery spaces or academic settings. The Magic Lantern strikes a balance between refinement and homespun authenticity that recalls cinema’s nickelodeon roots — the feeling of closeness among the audience, the projector beam hovering just above their heads, the steady hum of the film passing through the gate. One wonders if this is how movies felt in the early days, when audiences marveled at the worlds opening before them on the screen. Experimental film returns attention to the medium itself, bringing into focus its ability to preserve what has been lost, to bring the past to life. If good old-fashioned cinema has been lost, you can certainly find it again at the Magic Lantern.
Originally published in November 2011 issue of NewEnglandFilm.com
Spring 2008 – Eighteen girls in Gloucester High School were pregnant, nearly five times the average for the small fishing town on the Massachusetts coast. In June of that year, a story broke reporting that these girls had allegedly made a pact to become pregnant together. In a flurry of speculations and accusations, the media networks came and went, but a few local filmmakers were not satisfied with the unfinished portraits that were left of these young mothers. They went to Gloucester to befriend the girls and to help restore an outlet for them to tell their own stories. Three years later, their film The Gloucester18 is still searching for a wider release. Last week, I sat down with director John Michael Williams and Producer Kristen Grieco Elworthy to talk about the film and its current run on the new indie distribution platform Prescreen.
Kristen Grieco Elworthy was a reporter at The Gloucester Times in 2008 and released the original story about the rise in teen pregnancy at Gloucester High. In May, another staff writer reported that the high school’s resident doctor and nurse had left the health clinic. When that story hit the wires, it prompted an inflammatory article in TIME that quoted the high school’s principal alleging that a clique of girls had made a pact to become pregnant. This offhanded comment sparked a firestorm of international media attention and public outcry. Outlandish tales were printed by the media on mere heresy including a rumor that one of the girls was so desperate to have a child that she sought out a homeless man almost ten years her senior to impregnate her. Underneath the glare of the spotlight, the girls emphatically denied the existence of a pact and eventually the interest died down and Gloucester reclaimed a degree of peace and quiet. Williams and Elworthy however were alarmed at the gaping holes left in the story abandoned by the media.
Elworthy returned to Gloucester and teamed up with Williams to produce a documentary on the bizarre incident. The two embarked on the film project as a journalistic exercise in the spirit of human curiosity, hoping to unearth some deeper insights into the reasons behind Gloucester’s spike in teen pregnancies. “As a journalist, I don’t think it’s fair that reporters went out and told a story about these girls and then nobody ever got the truth and then they just went away and went on to the next thing,” said Elworthy. Williams and Elworthy felt that the media’s fixation on the purported pact clouded their ability to form meaningful conclusions about the incident, forming a kind of suture to repress a discussion of larger issues gnawing at the core of American society.
I was reminded by Williams that in 2008 teen pregnancy was a regular topic in the headlines and, as he recalled, “When we were shooting the climate was Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears, all this glit-teen mom, ‘16-And-Pregnant’ [television show], all this stuff that was glamorized and media-manipulated.” While the nation was searching for the answer to “Was there a Pact?” they were missing an opportunity to contextualize the trend and observe the real reasons for the steadily rising incidence of teen pregnancies across the country.
Elworthy commented that the culture of the “Baby-Bump,” coined by US Weekly, might have manifested itself in subtle ways in the high school hallways: “I talked to one girl who was a teen Mom and she said that girls came over to her and would say ‘Oh I want one just like yours’ and she would say ‘You don’t know what you’re saying, you don’t.’ She said she felt like people looked at her baby like an accessory, like a purse, like something that they wanted.”
The glare bearing down on the 18 girls from Gloucester was as scornful as it was intense, but it also left forgiving gray areas at the peripheries of the events framed by the news story. Williams shared anecdotes about other young mothers insisting they were certainly “not part of that” and spoke about the “Horribles Parade” in nearby Beverly Massachusetts, which satirized The Gloucester Eighteen the following year after the story hit the news: “These kids dressed up as pregnant girls and threw condoms instead of lollipops out to the crowd, but we happened to find out from someone that their teen pregnancy rate is actually higher than Gloucester’s.” Its neighbors may have surpassed their teen pregnancy rate, but for reasons beyond control, Gloucester had become a focal point, perhaps a scapegoat, for a widespread problem affecting a range of communities and socio-economic groups across the country.
Amidst ridicule and judgment, Gloucester residents clamped down and fought for their reputation, resisting the pull of the media. In many ways, the small town of Gloucester and its obstinate resilience is a key character in the story told by the documentary. Weathered by ongoing criticism and caustic accusations, the girls themselves were especially cautious of any further inquiries into their reasons for becoming pregnant. They had grown wary of their chroniclers, who would repeatedly make false assumptions in the service of preachy warnings or slanderous caricatures. The eighteen girls were featured in a Lifetime Network movie that took gross liberties in its portrayal of the young mothers despite having access to the same interviews that founded Williams’ more understated depiction. Elworthy was frustrated by the negligence of the Lifetime production: “What bugs me is it’s one thing to do a story and not know the truth, but it’s another thing to set it in Gloucester, use real news footage and act as though you’re portraying these girls’ stories. Besides the whole pact thing, they show these girls drinking at parties and passing out while they’re 6 or 7 months pregnant. It’s offensive because as far as I know none of that happened.”
Williams and Elworthy took a more patient approach, spending months getting to know the girls, their parents and other community members before rolling camera. Meanwhile production companies from New York and LA could not afford such a measured pace, and ultimately had to leave town, unable to persuade the girls to cooperate. “Everybody knows everybody in Gloucester,” Elworthy explains. “I think outside media had a hard time finding them because everybody knows everybody and they weren’t giving it up. When we went in we were able to find a few of them, talk to them. We had to network our way through and we had to spend a lot of time doing that. If you had to report that night, you never would have had the chance to find who you need to get their story.”
Over time, the girls began to open up, even finding a form of therapeutic release in sharing their stories with the camera. As the filmmakers became acquainted with their subjects, they began to shed many of their expectations. “You learn something about yourselves while you’re making a documentary and we realized we had a lot of preconceived notions. We thought we were going to see a certain type of teenage girl and we were shocked by the personalities of the girls,” Elworthy reflected. Many of them are shy and inarticulate, at times unable to explain themselves, leaving their accounts of motherhood half-formed and imprecise. One wonders if these are merely affectations of adolescence or if they all share a common thread of experience that has left them shell-shocked and tongue-tied.
Williams’ camera is honest and searching through these moments of hesitation, and these images speak volumes about the characters. The effect is one of sincerity and concern. After all, these young mothers are still children themselves and Williams shows sensitivity to that. His prior films have adapted children’s literature for the screen, and I wondered whether this had governed his approach to subject matter that hangs so problematically on the boundary between childhood and adulthood. “I loved kid’s books, I love kids and certainly these girls are still children to me, they’re adolescents. I think everything you do in your life, you carry some of that with you into your next project. I think it all brings bearing,” John said in our interview. In a storyline blown open by the brute mechanics of modern media, it is refreshing to see the trials of these girls treated with a gentler touch.
Williams spoke about the hardships some of these girls have endured: “When your mother gives you away at thirteen and puts you in foster care, when you never knew your father, when your grandmother, the person taking care of you, dies when you’re twelve…there are kids never stood a chance and were looking to create their own families and there is an issue with that.” However, this narrative of abandonment describes few of the girls featured in the film. Most appear to have stable homes and supportive families. Although the girls unanimously deny intent, Elworthy conjectures that bearing children was a deliberate act of empowerment for many of these girls, regardless of their background or upbringing: “Every woman is told you can be a good mother, it’s the thing we’re all supposed to be good at. I felt that not all, but some, of these girls maybe believed that this was a life plan for them, that they could be a mother and they could raise a baby and that they could do well.”
Elworthy and Williams both advised against drawing conclusions based solely on the external conditions that a character seems to inhabit: “What is hardship? We can never know the kind of experiences someone has had. You can only look on the outside of somebody’s life and say ‘You have two parents, you have a house, you have food on the table every night, you seem to be comfortable’…but we have no way of going in and saying ‘Well did anything really happen to you? Is there something you’re not telling us?’”
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching storyline in the film is between one of the girls and her mother, which surfaces towards the film’s conclusion. Both witnessed grizzly suicides at a young age, and have been struggling to process the experiences ever since. In an outpouring of emotion, the mother confesses that she failed to come to her daughter’s aid because she was incapable of coping with her own trauma. How could she guide her daughter through something she had never overcome herself? The two filmmakers disagree about the relevance of the segment to the main narrative of the film, but the inclusion of the subplot in the film is a pivotal choice. It provides a brief window into a deep well of pain that may remain concealed from any one of the characters’ testimonies. Williams explained his reasons: “Who would have thought that [she] was trying to compensate for a gaping loss that was this horrific tragedy? And you wouldn’t have known it. I felt like it was relevant. Maybe this family was just more transparent and was more willing to share what happened to them. Who knows what someone’s experience is? I thought anyone who would reveal something that intimate, that personal…we couldn’t resist that.”
The greatest strength of the film is its capacity for restraint, abstaining from hasty verdicts in favor of a receptive candor that invites the girls to speak for themselves. A series of matter-of-fact art titles at the end of the film are the only external commentary. There is no voice-over, no generalizations drawn from the specifics, no imperative to resolve the question of whether or not a pact caused the pregnancies. While the girls vehemently deny that they intended to become pregnant, let alone make a pact, the filmmakers openly acknowledge that the full truth has probably yet to come to the fore. “We have an extremely high rate of second pregnancies, normally it is 25%. In our case it is 90%. Almost all of them have at least two [babies]. Something weird went on,” Elworthy concedes. Yet Williams and Elworthy don’t feel it is their place to pressure their subjects and pry out the answers the media has been clamoring for. They acknowledge the limitations inherent to any documentary practice, especially in terrain where openness is restrained by taboos and controversy.
Williams and Elworthy are hoping a more open dialogue will emerge in a sequel in which they plan to examine the reasons behind the high rate of second pregnancies among the original group and to explore the fathers’ roles in their children’s lives. Now that the girls are older, Elworthy hopes they may have gained some perspective on the choices they made four years ago: “I actually wonder what they would say now about themselves then. I think at the time I said ‘If there was a pact we’ll never know because these girls have been chased down by the media and if they ever said the word ‘pact’ then they were going to be all over them again.’ I don’t think there was a pact the way everyone thinks there was, but I’d be interested to go back and ask them again — ‘Did you intend to get pregnant, what were your reasons?’”
For now the film is still searching for a wider release. It is currently hosted on Prescreen, a screening and fundraising platform imagined by one of the founding members of Groupon. The prescreen period ends at the end of November and the filmmakers are excited about what they may learn about their film from a marketing perspective and the insights they will draw about the next phase of the distributions process.