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Film

Getting Away from the American Dream

"Somewhere to Disappear" is a film about hermit monks and kids hiding from Nazis in caves with guns.
2011 november 03, 3:30pm

Somewhere to Disappear is a film that follows photographer Alec Soth as he seeks out hermits, monks, runaways and other people who have basically turned heel and sprinted in the opposite direction of the American Dream. Characters such as Dustin, a young skinhead with a gun who lives in a cave; and Steve, who has decided to build himself a home in the woods and who somehow knows the location of every hermit in a thousand mile radius. I called up the film's directors Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove to speak about the two years they spent on the road with Alec.

VICE: Hey guys. So, let's start with an easy question: Is the film about Alec's search for escapism, or escapism itself?
Laure: Only in Europe do people ask whether it's about Alec or the search for escapism. For us, it's both. The fact that Alec is so close to his subjects means that, in the end, it's the same thing.

OK. What attracted you to the film in the first place? There are quite a few interesting characters in the movie.
Laure: There are, but for us it wasn't a movie about weird people, it was a movie about people who realise their dream. We all share that. At some point we'd all like to disappear. Each subject in the project could've merited their own project, but Alec is a true explorer – he doesn't stop searching. For every ten crazy people he'd meet, one turned out perfect for the project.

In today's society do you think it's taboo for people to reject society, in the way that Alec's subjects have?
Laure: It's the opposite: it's quite fashionable. At least now more people understand why people do it. The world is becoming so fucked up that it pushes people into these lifestyles. Everything is becoming so extreme that people are forced to live in extreme ways.

Do you think that's in any way down to the 24-hour media culture we have now?
Laure: The media has changed everything – in the past there were earthquakes and tsunamis as regular as there are today, but the difference now is we will always know about it. Today, even if the event isn't affecting you personally, there can still be repercussions on your life. Some were really into the internet, whereas others had no telephone, no TV, no way of staying in touch with anybody.

For instance, with Garth, the guy who lives out in the desert with the horses, if we wanted to give him a DVD we'd have to fly over and give it to him in person, he doesn't even have a mailbox. On the other hand, Steve LaFontaine, the guy who helps Alec find the caves, when you post something online he will always be the first to comment. Both guys sort of made the same decision, but you can't say they live in the same way.

Tough. How did Garth support himself and his horses out in the desert for 25 years?
Laure: We were really wondering about that ourselves and I think he does, too. In the film, he says it costs him around $20 a day to feed the horses, but he doesn't have that kind of money. His whole philosophy is very interesting: 'I need that, I don't have it, but I will get it.' He was so generous, he'd make sure we were well fed; he even made us French toast.

Garth

So some characters, like Garth, look comfortable in the way they live. But that doesn't seem to be the case with Dustin, for instance. Like, maybe it wasn't his first choice.
Laure: Yeah. Garth has found his place even though that's not an easy way to live at all. For years he'd have to walk for hours to find the nearest water source and everything's always broken. We couldn't believe how he had created this paradise in the middle of the desert; It's like looking at the pyramids in Egypt. For Dustin, however, it's a totally different situation. It's not, like you said, his choice to be where he is. He's on the run from a neo-Nazi gang.

James was a poor kid who lived in a scrapyard with his parents in North Carolina

That must be fun. My favourite character in the film had to be Tony. He was such an intriguing character, I wanted to find out more. Who's your favourite?
Arnaud: For me it has to be Tony, too. His story was very sad and his house was really scary, his parents had abused him as a child and he'd boarded up all the windows of his house.
Laure: It's got to be Steve, we had a great time with him. But we are really grateful to everyone we met, they were all so open and friendly.

Tony's house

One thing you notice in the film is that there are no female characters. Why is that?
Laure: Well, we'd like to know too. Alex has been saying that this project was about men; full of testosterone. The way they choose to live is difficult and physical, very male in a sense. At a screening in Toronto, a woman in the audience accused us of not choosing to film any women. What she didn't understand is that there were no women to film. Our next film will be about lesbian feminists living in the wilderness, just to balance it out.

Would Alec's project work the same if he used digital rather than his large format camera?
Arnaud: We can't really speak about his project, but the big camera takes so long to set up that Alec has time to get to know the subject and that's interesting for the movie. Halfway through one of the trips he switched to a digital Hassleblad but it didn't really work so he switched back. People would also get really fascinated by the camera. They all wanted to get under the hood and play with it. It's a beautiful object.

Does Alec ever want to bring this project abroad?
Laure: No, this project was always about America and this fits well with your first question, the project is neither about Alec or his subjects. It's about America.

Arnaud and Laure

Arnaud and Laure are looking for a screening venue in London for the very near future. If anyone wants to help organise a screening please contact info@mas-films.com.

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