"It's our journey, but it is America's story," says Austin Chu, the older of two brothers who drove across the country last year to create a video documentary of the recession. Their project may remind us of some of the famous images that grew out of the Great Depression, photographs such as the "Migrant Mother" series by Dorothea Lange in the 1930s.
The video documentary, The Recess Ends, debuts on the internet this Sunday night.
It is America's story explains Austin, because the documentary (shot between January and June 2009), is narrated by the people, the sounds and the scenes of the United States during the heart of the recession. The film is woven together in a flowing narrative told by a cross section of Americans of different ages and financial standings as well as religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Austin, 26, came up with the idea for The Recess Ends, so named because "we've been playing for so many years and now it's time to get serious," after being pink slipped along with 15 others from a California start-up in December 2008.
Brian, 23, who had studied media and film in college, became intrigued with the idea and quit his job to hop in the van with Austin: "I signed the papers and packed my stuff and thought of that commercial 'you are now free to move about the country,' and it triggered a thought in me that I should drive across the country. And then I thought, 'I want to film it, I want there to be a purpose.'"
Because they don't take themselves too seriously, the brothers simply wanted to explore how the recession was affecting Americans. Beyond that, they didn't leave Irvine, CA in their 2001 dark green Toyota Sienna van with a hypothesis or a dream.
These young men who "like to think we're soccer dads without kids," says Austin, "just followed the news," says Brian, tuning into regional radio as they made their way through all 50 states. When they heard reports about layoffs at mines and plants, corporations and box stores, the Chus pulled off the highway and pulled into town with their camera and tripod. "We would just show up. Unannounced," declares Austin.
What they found and documented in this tale of two hundred cities, from farms in Iowa to the inner city of Detroit, the beaches of Hawaii and the suburbs of Arizona, is thousands of forthright people willing to share "their thoughts during some of the most pivotal moments of the recession. What we are doing here, really, is showing America. It is people talking to us... sharing stories, sharing their belief in community," says Austin.
In fact, the essence of community soon became the common thread that bound one city to the next, ultimately becoming the theme of the documentary.
"I want people to learn about and meet their neighbors. That's what I want people to take away from this movie," says Austin. "Know the people on the bus with you. Don't be afraid of each other. It sounds so hippyish, but when you skim away the money, all the excess, what you are left with is home, health, relationships and community."
The belief in the power of community and connectivity reverberated throughout the country.
"We need to start with one community at a time... shift money into local spending, create more jobs, not leave it to the experts," says a 20-something woman on the New Hampshire coast. Her comments were echoed clear across the country by a realtor standing in an abandoned suburban Scottsdale, Arizona suburb. "It's like a bomb has gone off, nobody is around ... If we all get out there and help each other through this period of time that is how we will get to where we need to go." And again, by a teenager in Milwaukee. "If everyone started doing in their community, you could actually change the world."
In Detroit: "[For so long we were told], stay in your house... no one knows anyone else. Used to be that we were afraid of the stranger," explains a 30-something man as he stepped gingerly over the abandoned remains of his old elementary school. "People started leaving and the schools started emptying."
The solution "is like a peanut butter cookie," expounds a 20-something bakery owner in North Carolina who had lost her job and with no prospects for work opened a small bake- shop in her small town. "Peanut butter is sticky and you want your community to stick together, to grow strong."
"More used to mean family and community," says a young woman in Hawaii. "Then for too long more started to mean money."
The Chu brothers give the viewer the opportunity to get to know the subjects of their film, returning to many of them a few times throughout the hour-long documentary. And so as we watch, we begin to worry about the Colorado rancher whose survival is tenuous at best. "If we make it life goes on," he says. "If we don't there will be a complete life-changing situation. We have 140 employees and all their families. The fallout of a facility like this is enormous."
We are enthralled then confused by the religious discourse of an Amish farmer; intrigued by the lessons of a DC corporate executive who preaches Greek philosophy. We hear rap songs and poems delivered by school children who recant how the recession has infected their world and we fall in love with a modern day philosopher from Detroit. "Grace Lee Boggs. She is one of our favorites," says Austin. "At around 90, she's still fighting like she's 25." An Asian American, Boggs, who was married to an African American man with close ties to the Black Panthers, is at the heart of Detroit's progress.
"This American revolution is going to be different from other revolutions," she says, "because it is going to require giving up things rather than acquiring things. We've been consuming like crazy, we've been making money like crazy and... well, Humpty Dumpty."
Detroit seems to be the beating heart of this very human movie, where so many of the lessons lie. "It seems like Detroit is ahead of the game in some ways because they've been living in these horrible, recession-like conditions for the past 30 or 40 years," suggests Austin. "The people who left, left. The people who stayed want to make it a place to call home. That's Boggs' lesson. That's how you save a community. It's about bringing people back." Boggs, herself, has lived in inner city Detroit for nearly half a century.
In their snapshot of America, the Chu's don't necessarily document the conditions of every state (though they did make their way through all 50), but they do share with the viewer what they themselves learned from the people they met. "There is a lot of wisdom from the older people ... who lived through the [Great] Depression. We need to harvest their knowledge and use it," says Austin. "We may not have learned what the formula is to save the country from economic disaster. But we did learn how to appreciate and how to be grateful. We learned generosity."
Though the brothers laid out $15K to make the movie, including 6-months of full-time travel and 4 months of full-time editing, they say they are not looking to re-coup their expenses or make any money on the project. "We don't want to charge people for the film," says Austin. "Taking money from a recession film ... that would be so wrong. Unlike Michael Moore who made 20-million dollars on his film, we don't want to do something like that." Moore's film, Capitalism: A Love Story, was released in October 2009.
Of their 145 days on the road, during which they covered more than 30-thousand miles, Austin and Brian spent only 15 nights in their van. Strangers who had been laid off, who were already living in homes overcrowded with out-of-work friends and relatives invited the brothers in, gave them beds or couches and fed them. "We spent Valentine's day with a man and his wife in Iowa," Austin says, still awed by their hospitality. "They had been married for 40-plus years. She was making breakfast for us and then she gave him a Valentine's card. 'I'm the luckiest guy on earth,' he told us. It was amazing."
On January 24th at 8pm EST, Austin and Brian will be available for a live, interactive conversation via justin.tv during the seconding airing of the film. Access the director's cut through the following link to, The Recess Ends.
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