Home Improvement is one of nine collections of short films presented at the Tribeca Film Festival. These six documentary short films are centered on the saying, “Home is where the heart is,” and all of the subjects in their own way are finding ways to improve and contribute to their respective homes. In Body Team 12 and The Trials of Constance Baker Motley, home is country, and it is worth putting one’s life on the line to make that country better for future generations. In The Gnomist, The Lights, and The House is Innocent, home is smaller communities like cities or neighborhoods, and art and humor can transform a forest into a magical place, a house into a Christmas spectacle, or a notorious murder house into a real home. Even Interview with a Free Man asks whether these men can meaningfully contribute and find their place in society after incarceration. Read on for a rundown of Home Improvement.
Body Team 12 – Body Team 12 follows a team of Ebola workers in West Africa as they undertake the dangerous task of retrieving the bodies of Ebola victims. Not only do they have to worry about contracting Ebola themselves, they also risk violence from family members who don’t want to give up the body. The filmmakers show the intensive process that these teams must go through every time they retrieve a body, wearing masks and full-body suits, getting thoroughly disinfected, convincing the family to release the body, and hoping that they have not contracted this disease wreaking havoc on their home.
These men and women are superheroes. They love their country so much that they are willing to risk their lives to save others, and Body Team 12 is so smart in that it has faith in its subjects. All they have to do to make a compelling documentary on the Ebola workers is follow these people in their work, observe and capture on film what they are up against, and occasionally ask the right question. There is no need for melodramatic voice-overs or cloying music. The cries of these families, who know their loved one’s body will be burned with no grave to visit, is powerful enough.
The Gnomist – The Gnomist takes a closer look at a series of miniature “fairy” homes that appeared along the walking trails in the Firefly Forest in Overland Park, Kansas. One day, the homes appeared with working doors and decorated interiors, crafted with care and full of incredible details. Nobody knew who was responsible except for the creators themselves, who are eventually revealed in the film.
At its heart, The Gnomist is about why people create art and how a work of art can change the world around it. The fairy homes inspired people to get outside and go to the park more often, to take the walking trails, to use their imaginations. For one family, the fairy homes provided comfort after losing their young daughter to brain cancer. The mother talks about walking the trails with her family and looking forward to seeing a new house or door in the forest. It provided a distraction and helped them to smile during a difficult time, and that’s what is so beautiful about it. These artists built the fairy homes with no other expectations other than they would make someone’s day a little better or the world a little brighter and more magical, and there is something pure and inspiring about that. Like the fairy homes themselves, The Gnomist was a bright spot in the Tribeca Film Festival, and I absolutely loved it.
The House Is Innocent – Back in 1988, Dorothea Puente was arrested for murdering nine people, collecting their Social Security checks, and burying seven of the bodies in her yard. Her house gained a certain fame and notoriety in the Sacramento area, and for years, it remained unsold, until Tom Williams and Barbara Holmes bought it in 2011. Rather than white-wash it or shy away from the house’s reputation, Tom and Barbara embraced it with a good sense of humor and opened their home to visitors and tour groups.
For a film about a murder house, The House Is Innocent is surprisingly funny and sweet. Tom and Barbara are such a likable couple, and they are so excited to make this house their home, it is hard not to get caught up in their excitement. Even Tom’s darker jokes, like a sign reading “Trespassers will be drugged and buried in the yard,” are punctuated with one of those Dad Joke chuckles (that laugh that almost every dad does after telling a joke), and it is practically impossible to be offended. On a last note, the mannequin dressed up as Dorothea Puente in the front yard is hilarious (and so wrong), and I love that Tom dressed her in the iconic red coat and put fake getaway money in her purse. Such attention to detail!
Interview With A Free Man – Interview With a Free Man is a series of job interviews with men who, for a variety of reasons, are looking for a fresh start. Some of them are actually interested in the job while others would just be happy with getting any job, but all of them see the prospect of the job as another chance.
Out of all the selections, Interview with a Free Man isn’t as obvious of a fit in the Home Improvement collection, but looking at the collection as a whole, it absolutely makes sense. The House is Innocent and The Gnomist are about taking something like a house or park and making it better, while Body Team 12 and The Trials of Constance Baker Motley are about people taking risks to make their world better. Here, these men are having to face the decisions that brought them here and think about what their life looks like on the outside. How are the formerly incarcerated integrated back into society, and are they given the chance to better themselves and contribute to their community in a meaningful way? It is a serious question and one that isn’t discussed enough. Interview with a Free Man belongs in the Home Improvement collection not only because these men are looking for a new start but because they can’t get there alone. Some of the burden falls on society to fix it and give these men a fighting chance. Interview With a Free Man doesn’t give all the answers, but it is a really good place to start a conversation.
The Lights – The Lights is one of the shortest films in the Home Improvement collection and probably one of the simplest of the short documentary films. The film follows Jorge Gervasi and Jorge Jr. as they decorate for Christmas, covering their house in hundreds (possibly thousands) of electric lights. They fuss over details before showing off their finished work, an almost blinding spectacle, and then they sit around as people admire it.
The reason why The Lights is memorable isn’t the lights themselves, though they are quite a sight. The image that stuck with me after it was over was Jorge and Jorge Jr. sitting in the midst of the lights and decorations with these bored, bordering on depressed, expressions. This shot captures the weariness that many people feel during the holidays without a word of dialogue, and director Manuel Abramovich lingers on this moment for so long that it goes from amusing, such outward apathy amongst this holiday busyness, to uncomfortably familiar.
The Trials Of Constance Baker Motley – The Trials of Constance Baker Motley gives a brief history of the legal career of Constance Baker Motley. She had an incredible law career, becoming the first female African-American appointed as a federal judge and the first voted New York state senator. On top of these accomplishments, she was an integral part of the civil rights movement, arguing ten civil rights cases in front of the Supreme Court and winning nine of those cases.
To be honest, I was not familiar with the career of Constance Baker Motley before seeing this film. It spurred me to read more about life, and having done so now, I am stunned that she was not included in my middle school and high school history classes alongside other civil rights activists of the time. In only 25 minutes, director Rick Rodgers captures Motley’s intelligence, her humor, and her courage in the face of prejudice and very real threats of violence. I believe this film should be made available to schools and shown in classes across the country, not only to make people aware of her life and accomplishments but to inspire young people, particularly young women.