Document it yourself

While the do-it-yourself aesthetic may be best exemplified in music, its methods have spread through most other art forms.

Some filmmakers have returned to the old-school method of taking it to the streets, distributing their own work, and that of other like-minded filmmakers, the old-fashioned way — dubbing tapes and swapping or selling them at screenings or through the mail. Few if any filmmakers have taken the DIY pattern to heart more than itinerant Texan Bill Brown.

Brown, currently a Detroiter teaching at the College for Creative Studies, makes documentary films, though not by traditional definition. You could call his films personal documentaries, experimental documentaries or personal essays, but whatever the label, they’re some of the best examples of a new documentary style that’s being explored by many young filmmakers today.

In his own words, Brown likens his task of collecting sounds and images to that of “a hobo, a drifter, who collects campfire stories,” and says he’s not as interested in creating a permanent record of the world as “a permanent record of passing feelings.”

In 2002, Brown and Chicago filmmaker Thomas Comerford mounted the Lo-Fi Landscapes tour, packing Brown’s pickup truck with their recent films, some projectors and a change of clothes, and hitting the road for screenings in some 30 cities around the Midwest, East Coast and Deep South. They showed their films in micro-cinemas and farmhouses, sometimes on strung-up bed sheets, sleeping on couches and occasionally in the bed of Brown’s truck.

The tour wasn’t lucrative, but they did manage to break even — the experimental film equivalent of a blockbuster. This tour has come to be seen as something of a watershed for indie filmmakers; some have decided to follow in their footsteps (almost literally) by touring many of the same cities and locales.

After making several more films, Brown and Comerford are again touring the country with the Lo-Fi Landscapes 2: Pictures from the New World tour, making a stop at the Detroit Film Center. Their latest films, Brown’s Mountain State and Comerford’s Land Marked/Marquette Series explore monuments and roadside markers, the former in rural West Virginia, the latter in Chicago.

Rather than documenting a distant past represented by the monuments, these films are about “now” as much as “then.” The monuments are part of the contemporary landscape, but they also evoke an absent landscape of the past and exist as gateways between what was and what is, and perhaps tell something of what happened in between.

There’s a political resonance to both films, as they look at what amounts to a white man’s history of the landscapes depicted, but particularly to Comerford’s images of the commemoration of the explorers who “discovered” the Chicago River and the rest of what would become Chicago.

The filmmakers will also be screening Chicago Detroit Split, a 10-minute collaborative piece shot in 8mm, that splits the screen to compare streets in Chicago and Detroit. Before the screenings, local band the Wallace Bros. will evoke their own forgotten landscapes through song.


Doors at 7 p.m. Friday, May 20, at Detroit Film Center, 1227 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-9936 or; $5 admission.

Brent Coughenour is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Movies articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.