The screen had just faded to black at the sneak preview of In Our Backyard, 23-year-old Adam Fischer’s first documentary film. “Adam! What the hell was that?” shouted a tall man in the front row, whom audience members soon recognized from the film as Thomas Smith.
After shooting 14 hours of interviews with neighborhood residents, community activists, and business leaders, asking their opinion about what impact the new $756 million Washington Convention Center would have on Shaw, Fischer probably expected a little controversy. Evenperhaps especiallyamong this audience dominated by convention-center opponents, of whom Fischer could be considered a fellow traveler.
So why the outburst? Moments before, between the film’s credits and a frame informing viewers that Fischer now resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., a woman sporting a gray suit, a silver necklace, and an abundance of facial foundation had stated that most of the convention center’s naysayers live outside Shaw, anyway.
That woman was Emily Vetter, who viewers may or may not have known is the former president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., a major backer of the potential boondoggle. “You gave the last word to a shill for the convention center!” exclaimed Smith, who viewers may or may not have known as a one-time Statehood Party candidate for the D.C. Board of Education. (Former Washington City Paper Senior Editor Michael Schaffer appears in the film, as well.)
In fact, viewers may or may not have known anything about any of Fischer’s interviewees: The filmmaker had decided against identifying talking heads by a business or community affiliation. Only their names accompanied their faces, though backdrops sometimes provided clues. “My whole opinion on it was that authority equals voice, and I really wanted to strip [it] down and concentrate on substance,” Fischer says. “What I didn’t want was someone to see Tony Robinson [titled] ‘Washington Convention Center Authority public affairs director’ and take his word as gospel.”
In Our Backyard began as a class assignment during Fischer’s senior year at American University. “I didn’t want to just make another little-guy-versus-big-guy Michael Moore-style documentary,” says Fischer, who graduated in May 2000. “That was the kind of film I really loved and was passionate about and kind of got me into documentary film in the first place, but I really wanted to do something different.”
After the 30-minute film screening at AU last Sunday evening, the question-and-answer session that had the feel of a graduate filmmaking workshop followed. “I thought it was great that there were no titles, no job description, no nothingjust the name,” remarked one member of the audience, who mentioned that he had recently moved to the area and knew “absolutely nothing” about local affairs, “because it makes me look at that person and listen very closely to what they’re sayinglook at their body language and then judge.”
Others thought that the lack of titles might have confused viewers unfamiliar with D.C.’s political gadflies. “I really disagree….I think you should re-edit and put the titles in,” barked another viewer a few minutes later. “I think so much of what the movie is about is concentrations of power…and how these concentrations come together and manipulate people.”
Perhaps Fischer had more than one motive for leaving certain things unsaid. “[B]ecause I left the titles out,” he says, “I guaranteed that, for people to really get it, they’re going to have to watch it more than once.” Elissa Silverman
In Our Backyard will screen at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, 1927 Florida Ave. NW. A question-and-answer session will follow.