Austin Film Society Documentary Tour
'Fish Kill Flea'
Before we're introduced to the subject of the oddly titled Fish Kill Flea namely, the flea market that would occupy the space where once stood the bustling Dutchess shopping mall, the epicenter of commerce and community in the New York village of Fishkill in the Seventies we're served up a little contextual history by the town's British-accented historian. Walking through an old cemetery and later, standing under an umbrella in the rain in front of the 1745 house that George Washington once stayed in, he talks about the importance of preserving history and laments the decline in interest therein. (He also explains the origin of the town's name, Fishkill: "kill" being a derivative of the Dutch word for "creek" and having "nothing to do with murder or the death of something.") Cut to the shambles that was the Dutchess shopping mall following its demise in the Nineties: a forsaken, trashed-out shell of what it used to be; a visual testament to the impermanence of commercial enterprise, if ever there were one. But, then, along came the flea market.
Brian Cassidy shopped at the Dutchess as a child. Later on, as a photographer, he began shooting a series about the mall and the flea market but was never satisfied with the resulting pictures. Some years later, visiting the flea market with fellow, soon-to-be-first-time filmmakers Aaron Hillis and Jennifer Loeber, Cassidy learned that the flea market was now slated for its own dance with obsolescence: It would soon be demolished to make way for a Home Depot. "Right then and there," Cassidy recalls, "the three of us decided to make a film about this place, which we all agreed was far too important to let remain unnoticed." Explains Hillis: "The vendors and customers were inevitably going to scatter and that particular subculture erased forever, which to us was a fascinating paradox: The flea market would expire, but it never could have existed if the mall hadn't died first. Furthermore, it's a sad fact of life that this cannibalistic cycle is destined to repeat itself forever. So what's worth preserving? What defines a landmark? And who earns the right to answer these questions? Considering the joys, amenities, and special moments the mall once offered, is it all that strange to eulogize 'the great palace of commerce'?"
Wednesday, April 11, 7pm
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown
Austin Chronicle: The film, which played South by Southwest this year, is a crazy quilt of archival stills and footage, vérité scenes, and interviews with quirky characters vendors, shoppers, management not to mention great music. Beyond money, were there nonobvious challenges to making your first film?
Aaron Hillis: It's funny that you ask about filmmaking challenges aside from money, because honestly, there wasn't a single moment where we found ourselves begrudging the fact that we only had whatever was in our pockets as a budget. Brian was in grad school, so he had the easiest access to DV cameras and equipment, and like one of Lars von Trier's notorious obstructions, it was just an unspoken element in our filmmaking that we were forced to use natural lighting, tons of handheld shots, and whatever vérité techniques spoke to our lack of resources. By the end of shooting, we ended up with full access to just about everyone and every place we wanted, so our major challenges were in shaping some sort of linear framework to our narrative. It's extremely difficult to make a compelling documentary with no voiceover, titling, or animation, plus one that utilizes a kind of patient camerawork that you'd sooner find in an arthouse film.
Brian Cassidy: On the third day of shooting, while reloading the camera, a large condor perched onto the roof of the mall. The bird was somehow able to lift the roof off of the marketplace, temporarily exposing all of the shoppers and vendors to the outside world. For that brief moment, everyone was able to see everything clearly. We did not shoot it but simply stood in awe. Some of the best moments throughout our six months of filming at the marketplace occurred while we were not shooting yet somehow informed every corner of every frame within our finished film.
AC: And what was it like making a movie as a collaboration of three?
Jennifer Loeber: It was like daily mud wrestling to determine who had the control and power that day. All joking aside, I think we realized early on that this was a three-person operation in its entirety. Regimented roles weren't feasible and ultimately, were less interesting. Three minds working on the same creative solution was a lot more exciting.
AH: Feel free to mention that Brian is flat-out lying about the condor.