Where Are We? is a brilliant documentary by the filmmakers/couple Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who brought us the award winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. This time around, the subject is the mysterious land we know as America, as the guys grab a video camera and head into the deep south to chat with the locals…and show us a side of our country we mostly only hear about in movies like Deliverance. And you'd be amazed at how wrong (and at the same time, how right) those Hollywood perceptions are.
Imagine grabbing your camcorder, hopping in your van, and taking a spontaneous road trip through the vast unknown regions of America that you've only heard about—and perhaps had nightmares about. That's exactly what Rob and Jeffrey did in this absolutely mesmerizing documentary, which draws you in from the very beginning.
This is no laughing matter for the two men, who are a gay couple from San Francisco. Only 18 days after the Persian War ended, they headed into some of the most bigoted, prejudice states on our map to meet the real people who live there. Ironically, at first, we think we really are going to laugh our way through this film, as the guys talk with stereotypically toothless trash and get uneducated responses like, "we accept people from all countries" when they ask an individual what he thinks of people who come from California. But our assumption that we're going to be entertained by the ignorance of people we think we already know comes to a screeching halt after only a few interviews.
Rob and Jeffrey take us into diners, into black churches, on buses and trains, into barbershops, and even trailer home shopping with a young couple expecting a baby. We meet a woman who is so obsessed with Elvis that her husband has built her a splendid mini-Graceland in her garden. We hear attacks against liberals who think taking away guns from people will stop murder. We hear from African-Americans in the south—and somehow, the one single camera captures their oppression, even now, and we feel incredibly afraid for them. We visit a small club where a failed performer/dancer who knew all the big stars in the 1960s candidly admits her regret that she missed her chance to make it big. Two 19 year old girls describe how they know they need to leave their state to avoid getting caught up in the whole 'get married and pregnant and buy a trailer home' thing before it's too late.
In Las Vegas, Rob and Jeffrey speak to jobless people who came with the little money they had in hopes of striking it rich, and are now homeless. A visit to a residential facility for AIDS patients brings out an incredibly moving admission of fear—of the unknown, of death, of tomorrow. And a visit to a gay bar near a military facility is an empowering visit for a group of military officers (and their "mother," a drag queen) who realize they are tired of hiding in shadow and secret when they are trying to serve the country they love.
Through all of this, we see that behind these seemingly simple people there are very real hopes, dreams and fears. These individuals, approached by a pair of strangers, with no script or plan of action, shockingly open their hearts to the camera and expose their feelings, as if they've been waiting their whole lives for someone to just ask them to do so. Their vulnerability comes through, and there are times where you see that when admitting to the camera what their lives are like, they are actually admitting it to themselves for the first time, and it hits them hard. And the camera just captures that emotion, not dropping its gaze. You realize that these people are just victims of their circumstances, and had you been born in the wrong place, you could just as easily have been them, and here you are, complaining about how you don't make enough money, don't have everything you want, feel you're in a dead end job.
Juxtaposed against all this surreal realism is an occasional word from the two directors, who narrate short stories of their own lives, so much different than the ones they are learning about, which just drives home the feeling of coming from completely different worlds in the same country. And then there's that amazing choice of theme music that adds to tone of the film.
Where Are We? was shot directly to video, and this full frame presentation truly wowed me. The picture is sharp, crystal clear and colorful, or as colorful as the setting of the moment allows, which really demonstrates the atmosphere of the surroundings the filmmakers are visiting.
The film is presented in Dolby stereo, and the two-channel sound was again, incredible. The filmmakers chose an almost whimsical melody for their soundtrack, and from the moment it started, sounding crisp and clear on this audio track, I thought, "this is so 'Over the Rainbow.'" Apparently, that's what the filmmakers were going for, because seconds later, they held the camera on a real rainbow shooting across a blue sky.
Not much in the way of extras, but we didn't really need more, because this film punched such a wallop, too much bonus material would have just been overkill. Here's what you get:
Outtakes—this was only 4 minutes long, and I can see why it was taken out. There was an extended indoor visit with the Elvis fanatic which dragged, and then a focus on an African-American reverend, and although it would have added further perspective to the individuals met along the way, he just sort of baffled me, and I didn't get much from his little performance.
Outtakes with directors' commentary—You heard right. But this short commentary isn't really about the outtakes, it was just a place to put a fast note about how Rob and Jeffrey went about making this film, the process of real spontaneity they captured, and their own reactions to how the people they interviewed opened up to them.
Filmmakers' Photogallery—a good number of black and white stills of the crew of filmmakers behind the camera, as well as posed shots of the people the filmmakers interviewed.
Where Are We? is an unexpected tour through the South. With just a camera, a gay couple from San Francisco hit the road and make us feel like strangers in a strange land…in our own country. Filled with candid interviews with unsuspecting individuals who are struggling to live out their dreams in the South, we learn how very real these people are, despite everything we've heard said, or worse, scoffed about them. Whether or not you are a fan of the documentary, I can almost guarantee that if you catch even one moment of this movie, you are going to sit down and watch it to the end. And then, you're going to want to make others you know watch it.