You may call them your personal belongings -- clothes, books, posters, toys, bric-à-brac, you name it -- but are they really that personal? Do you know who's behind the scenes at the sock factory or who pressed the print on your favorite t-shirt? If not, it's time you meet your maker and watch Handmade Nation -- Faythe Levine's new documentary about the DIY art, craft and design community. The film effectively captures the passion behind those who embrace the pioneer spirit and treat craft as not just a novelty, but as a lifestyle.
The way Handmade Nation is filmed reflects the subject matter. Some shaky cinematography, a few zoom-happy sequences and blown-out shots give it a DIY feel. Although it may not always be pretty (albeit an endearing stop-motion title sequence) or cinematic, it has a homemade look that works and doesn't interfere with the commentary. If Gus Hutwit's 2007 documentary Helvetica -- a stunning portrait of the most ubiquitous font in the world -- used the same type of loose camera work, it would have been a deal-breaker. But Handmade Nation, which is similar to Helvetica in its approach, assumes a quirkiness that allows for some technical slack.
Levine stitches the film together with 80 interviews in 15 cities, introducing individuals and companies who are in the vanguard of the indie craft movement. The undeniable rise of craft culture can be seen firsthand by the launch of the DIY television network or from big names like Todd Oldham and Amy Sedaris contributing their own work to craft books. Events such as the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, as shown in the film, are far from your typical country craft fairs and are attracting a new breed of young creatives who are eager to shake up the status quo of consumer goods. It's become more of a social networking event than strictly a cash-in-hand shopping experience.
One of the best moments in the film comes from a group based out of Houston, Texas called Knitta. They organize late night public art missions, but instead of spray paint they're armed with knitted works that they affix to stop signs, buildings, trees, or whatever they feel like. Just imagine grown women jumping out of a car in the middle of the night and climbing on each other's shoulders to attach a colorful hand-knitted sleeve to a lamp post. They defend against charges of vandalism, rebranding what they do as "FUNdalism," non-destructive acts of imagination.
In addition to featuring crafters from around the country and some "how-to" instruction on making a latch-hook rug or flame working a glass bead, Handmade Nation discusses some of the key philosophies behind the indie craft community: from the purists who use only sustainable, eco-friendly materials to the punks who steer clear from the mall mentality in favor of self-sufficiency. Levine brings enough people to the table to get a variety of perspectives on what can be defined as "craft," and its potential impact on society's buying habits.
Today's consumer climate makes it difficult to find goods that are original, have flair, or are handmade, for that matter. We're swimming in cheap junk and regularly spoon-fed products that are mass-produced and marketed towards target groups. Michael Jordan has had his Hanes on millions of people but I doubt any of them got to shake his hand after buying that white tee. Handmade Nation does well with addressing the issue of uniformity from the small business standpoint, where supply can be limited but sincerely coveted. The founders of San Francisco's Little Otsu, a boutique paper goods and crafts store, explain how they never thought to consider themselves crafters but knew they wanted to showcase handmade goods in a store setting. As interest in the manufactured stuff dwindles, they're more than happy to cater to those who appreciate craftsmanship and ingenuity.
There's something empowering about buying handcrafted, one-of-a kind goods directly from the makers. You know your dollars are going towards a worthy cause instead of padding some big wig's wallet. And it also creates a deeper connection between you and your "stuff," to know you have original work made with care by a human being.
Only time will tell whether this recent movement will hit a glass ceiling or continue to inspire more to get crafty. Handmade Nation proves that even if it's a fad, supporting indie crafts is still a win-win situation. It has encouraged people to cultivate real, tangible skills that may not be completely marketable, but are none-the-less rewarding.
Handmade Nation is playing at the Mezzanine on Wednesday, March 11, 2009. Doors open at 7:00pm, show starts at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $8 for SFFS members and $12 for non-members. Following the screening, there will be a discussion with Lisa Congdon, owner of retailer Rare Device, Derek Fagerstrom, co-owner of The Curiosity Shoppe, Natalie Zee Drieu, senior editor of Craft magazine, and Stephanie Syjuco, fine artist and professor.