August 28, 2008
"Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness"
On Thursday, September 11, 52nd City is proud to co-present "Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness" at the Webster University Film Series. The film, by noted documentarian Melody Gilbert, follows urban explorers in a variety of settings, throughout America and Europe. A visual treat, the project does a wonderful job of introducting the UE "hobby" to the uniniated, while serving as a call-to-travel for those already taking part in the scene.
Gilbert responded to some questions about the film, which will screen at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at 7 p.m.
When picking out the date to show UE, I thought that September 11 would be an apt date. Can you discuss the impact that 9/11 had on the UE subculture?
As "Max Action" said in the movie, "It is inherently, even before 9/11, a pretty suspicious looking activity -- slinking around, getting into these supposedly secure places, dressed up with lights on your head." But in the past, explorers were never thought of as potential terrorists. Trespassers, maybe. But terrorists? No way. So it's worse now. But that doesn't stop most people from doing it. You just need to be more careful.
In reading notes about the project, you seem to suggest that UE was not a topic you were very versed in prior to investigating it for the film. Were you surprised at the depth and breadth of participants?
I had an inkling about the wide range of people who were involved in "UE" from checking out various UE websites. I was fascinated! I wondered what kind of hobby drew so many different kinds of people: young adventure-seekers, older historic preservationists, photographers, people into gear and other people who explore with just a flashligh t-- and they're all doing the same thing. At one point, when I was underneath Paris at dinner party in the Catacombs, I met a French explorer (a computer programmer) who said it best: " We say usually that people represent in the Catacombs what's on the surface. And I know an explorer who is the head of a big corporation and is very rich. And some others are really poor and some are into computers and some are scientists and some are teachers. There is a big variety of people."
With a project like this, I imagine that anyone into UE projects wants to tell you about their best/worst experiences. Do you field a lot of stories and anecdotes from people involved in the scene? I'll, of course, have to include a link to my own UE flickr photos when sending this!
Yes, I've heard lots of stories. I wish I could have found a way to include so many great stories in the movie (including yours!). But it certainly makes a more interesting movie to see the stories instead of just hearing about them. For example, I had a great time filming at the "UE" convention in Glasgow (which you'll see in the movie). You couldn't make this stuff up. Same with the Catacombs.
Did you ever come across a UE location that had a particular, sinister vibe to it? One that made you think, "hmm, bad things may've happened in this space?"
Yes, once at abandoned mental institution in Scotland. There was an empty suitcase there that made me pause and catch my breath. It was right next to an antique electroshock machine. I knew there were many awful things that had happened in there.
There are those amazing images in the film shot underground in Paris. Were you surprised that Parisians would enjoy food and wine while sitting amongst human bones?
Yes, I certainly was surprised. It's one of my favorite parts of the movie, both making it and watching it! Baguette and pate, anyone?
Were there any folks that you really enjoyed getting to know during the filming process? Any "characters" that have stayed in touch, in some context?
I've stayed in touch with most of the people in the movie. They all have a soft spot in my heart because we shared an experience that required trusting each other in ways not normally required of strangers. Some I see when I travel to screenings. Some via email. Some I still see here in Minneapolis/St Paul. I especially enjoyed meeting "Slim Jim" (you'll see why when you see the movie) and "Max Action" (the exploring icon who is an amazing writer). Also, "Katwoman" and "Mr. X." I was there filming when they met for the first time. I was there when he proposed to her. And I recently filmed their wedding! Yes, an explorer match made in heaven.
There's a split in the UE subculture, it appears, between those who post about their travels online (whether text, photos or video) and those who militantly want to keep their spaces and locations a secret. Did you run into this during filming? Maybe coming across some folks who didn't want to be "outed" for lack of a better term?
I solved this problem by promising not to show exactly where the locations were or how to get into them.
What's an aspect of documentary filmmaking that wouldn't be known, even to hardcore fans of docs? The time component? The money? The amount of patience needed to crack your story?
All of the above. Plus how physical the work is. It can sometimes be very difficult to lug video camera gear everywhere (along with microphones, batteries, tapes,etc), especially when trying to jump a ten-foot fence or squeezing through a tiny hole in the Catacombs. Be nice to independent filmmakers!
What projects are you working on presently?
I'm working on three feature-length documentaries right now. One I just finished called DISCONNECTED (www.disconnecteddocumentary.com) which I made along with my students at Carleton College. It's about three students who stopped using all computers for a month. The second is about the former Vice President Walter Mondale. The third one is about a guy who was on anti-depressants for ten years and decided to quit taking them (and filmed the experience).
And what's the last cool, abandoned space that you're run through recently?
Sorry to say that I haven't been exploring much lately because I'm so busy working on new films. But that last cool space I went to was an abandoned motel. Saw it and just couldn't resist. But I didn't have my video camera with me and I realized that was the first time I had gone exploring without my camera. It was was a very different experience. You can just be in the space without worrying if you're getting good video or if the audio is working. Loved it!