Where to Aim, When to Shoot

Film as a weapon in a time of war: Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival coverage.

Maybe the $128,000 question in Stevie is whether James's camera gets in the way of his help--or whether a pedophile deserves a filmmaker's help to begin with. Whatever one decides, the film is a landmark documentary, and not only for its degree of proximity to the titular offender (who, further complicating matters, isn't without his charms). Even more rare is the movie's inclusion of the director himself as a subject--one who regularly dares to convey his deep uncertainty about both Stevie's reliability and his own. (A more benign example of the film's psychic toll can be found in the documentarian's hair, which turned gray over the course of the four-and-a-half-year shoot.) Skirting the outer edge of self-indulgence, James concludes the movie with a richly ambiguous close-up of his face as he reacts to the claim of Fielding's fiancée that "some good has come out" of an excruciating ordeal. Asked for a current update to that reaction, the filmmaker says he's still not sure.

"The more idealistic side of me says that people need to understand how someone gets to a place where they commit crimes like this," says James. "Virtually every film I've seen about sexual abuse has either been purely from the point of view of the victim, vilifying the offender completely as evil incarnate, or characterizing the offender without trying to show the reasons behind the offense. People always say, 'How could anyone do that?' Well, this is how they could do that."

Steve James will appear at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 13 at the Riverview Theater to introduce a screening ofStevie and answer questions afterward.

 

Well-Trained

With 'Long Gone,' MCAD grad David Eberhardt proves he has been on the right track for years

By Jeremy O'Kasick

Filmmaker David Eberhardt has just landed a sweet deal--for a rusty Volvo in Pensacola, Florida. This battered wagon will haul him--he hopes--across the U.S. to festivals screening Long Gone, his train-hopper documentary that won two awards at the Slamdance Film Festival in January.

A native of Minnesota, Eberhardt spent some seven years making the film--living along the rails, seeing the country through a boxcar doorframe, and trading tales with legendary tramps such as New York Slim and Dogman Tony. He hasn't had a true home in four years: His most recent sleeping quarters have been in a Santa Monica editing suite where, even after Slamdance, he continued to labor over Long Gone. Eberhardt still considers himself a Minnesotan (he grew up in Forest Lake and Hopkins), and will appear in person to introduce the movie at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. He describes the Twin Cities as something of a hobo meeting hub, and gives equal praise to the area's burgeoning film scene. But a quick pass through his old stomping grounds isn't likely to cure Eberhardt of his wanderlust.

"Riding trains is addictive," says the 37-year-old filmmaker, speaking on the phone from his hotel room near the Florida Film Festival in Orlando. "When you realize you can be anywhere in any state without a nickel to your name and work the system to keep on riding, that's when you know you're hooked."

Eberhardt started hopping trains as a film student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in the early 1990s, when he began to photograph tramps for a book of black-and-white stills. That project developed into a short student film, and later into a feature-length documentary, as he teamed with co-director Jack Cahill and fellow MCAD grad Greg Yolen, who served as cinematographer.

Eberhardt estimates that he spent more than two of the shoot's seven years on the rails, learning all the tricks of the tramp: jumping trains, dodging the railroad bulls, dumpster diving, street hawking. As the director became what he had beheld, the subjects in turn became quasi-collaborators. And as the movie grew in size and scope, Eberhardt got off the train long enough to work a hodgepodge of jobs and track down sponsors for completion funds. "Life is much easier on the rails than on someone else's doorstep with your hat in hand for the sake of a documentary," he says.

Following the crisscrossed narratives of seven tramps, Long Gone is fueled by a rugged original soundtrack from Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. (Besides helping to score funding for the project, Waits would use some of the rail-riding tunes for his comeback album Mule Variations.) Juggling multiple film stocks and styles, from Super 16mm to digital video, and from grainy black and white to shots taken with filtered color lenses, Eberhardt and company have stylized their documentary to the extreme.

"It has become something of a voodoo soup," he says, adding that this is just fine by him. "No documentary is objective, and I don't buy that 'purist' cinema vérité shit."

For the most part, the fancy camerawork enhances the stories told along the tracks by the hobos themselves, as Eberhardt wisely remains unseen and unheard. Some, like Dogman Tony, are lifelong riders who still run from ghosts of dead loved ones and struggle to make commitments. Others, like the teenaged Jessie, explore unknown territory and themselves, trying to maintain ties and overcome drug abuse. The film's greatest strength lies in the portrayal of compassionate bonds between the tramps, and in the revelation of their personal vulnerabilities. Along the way, Long Gone manages to ride right past romantic notions of freight trains and degrading stereotypes of the people who ride them.

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