Some documentaries are made to stand forever; others matter at a particular moment in time or not at all. Austin Chu is quite clear which category The Recess Ends belongs to. Shot earlier this year in a host of depressed burgs and ‘burbs across the country, the verité documentary is a pulsing snapshot of the United States at its lowest economic ebb in generations. "I feel it’s one of those pieces that needs to be seen now," Chu declares. "I can’t wait for anyone. If someone buys it and distributes it next year, we’ve missed the mark." Made on a shoestring and rushed out into the world, The Recess Ends reflects both the new economy and the future of independent filmmaking.
When Chu was laid off from an Orange County startup last December, the 26-year-old acted on a long-simmering idea he had. Frustrated that the nightly news wasn’t covering the recession’s effects on everyday folks, he pitched the idea of a road trip and a film to his younger brother. Austin was fluent in social networking tools while Brian, a San Francisco State grad with a degree in television and radio, had experience as an editor, production coordinator and camera operator. Two weeks later, Brian quit his job, the brothers pooled $4,000 and the adventure was on.
The brothers figured they could survive if they bought food and fuel, but not hotel rooms. Austin used Facebook and Twitter to update friends along the way and get leads for places to stay. And they relied on the kindness of strangers.
"Our number one goal wasn’t to get a story," Austin says. "It was never about, ‘Hey, can I interview you?’ We would talk about our project, they would get a feel for us. And they’d say, ‘If you’re ever in X town, call me because I know someone who lives there.’"
One of the curious things about road movies is that limited assets typically turn out to be to the filmmaker’s advantage. "Having no money allowed us to struggle," Austin confides. "It forced us to talk to people. We would be at a coffee shop after it closed using free Wi-Fi to try and find someone to stay with." The final tally: In the course of three months of touring around, they only slept in the van around 10 nights.
There was plenty of time for the brothers to talk, needless to say, and shaping The Recess Ends was a favorite topic of conversation. "We started piecing together structure and timeline during downtime on the road," Austin relates. "By the time we got back to California we already had a basic foundation and a basic structure."
Perhaps it goes without saying that Austin didn’t embark on this project with grandiose delusions of becoming a household-name documentary filmmaker. Even now, when he’s identified in interviews as a filmmaker, he does a double-take.
"Am I really a filmmaker? I did make a film. There are a lot of producers who don’t produce. And actors who don’t act. If they can call themselves that, so can I. I didn’t go out to make this film to become a filmmaker. I wasn’t a filmmaker before I left. I can’t say I’m a filmmaker after I finished the film. We’re just good at interviewing people and cutting together footage. But I knew how important video media was, and it was a way for me to contribute to society and get my own thoughts around what was going on."
The brothers hosted a free premiere screening of The Recess Ends in September at the Victoria Theater in the Mission. It might seem odd to give the product away for free—especially when Austin emptied his pockets on admission fees for a couple dozen 2010 film festivals. But his logic is unassailable. "I didn’t want people to have to buy a ticket to see a recession film," he says. "It didn’t make sense to me."
The sell-out show also told Austin something: "If we can do one theater, I’m pretty sure we can do two. And if we can do two, we can do a hundred."
The Recess Ends returns to the Victoria for one more free show next Friday, Nov. 20 (although the filmmakers welcome donations to offset the cost of renting the theater.) To check out the trailer, go to therecessends.com. To sign up for tickets, go to therecessends.eventbrite.com.
Austin, who relocated to the lower Haight following the trip, recoils at news stories that focus on the stock market and increases in GNP and the supposed end of the recession. "We can’t just say it’s over and sweep it under the carpet," he declares. "This is my way of inviting people to look back at their values and see what’s important. It’s not really a film about the recession—it’s about humanity and people coming together and organizing and inspiring each other."
Notes from the Underground
The 34th annual American Indian Film Festival hosts a panel on "Native American Women vs. Hollywood Stereotypes" at 10 a.m. Thursday Nov. 12 at the Radisson Fisherman’s Wharf. ... Will Parrinello’s Mustang: Journey of Transformation, which premiered last month in the Mill Valley Film Festival, airs Wed., Nov. 18, at 10 p.m. on KQED as part of a national PBS broadcast. ... Pixar and Disney honcho John Lasseter will receive the Producers Guild of America’s 2010 David O Selznick Achievement Award In Motion Pictures in Hollywood on Jan. 24, 2010. He’s the first producer of animated films to receive the honor.
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