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'If You Build It' Gives Hope For Success, But You'll Miss The Struggle

Long Shot Factory
Studio H student Erick Bowen and instructor Matthew Miller work on constructing the Windsor Farmers Market pavilion. From "If You Build It."

In the new documentary If You Build It, a group of high school students build a farmers market in a small North Carolina town. The project was an experiment in education that seems to have worked, but does a good project equal a good film?

Now that everybody and his uncle have access to a digital camera, it seems that just about every human being on the planet is working on a documentary. That’s fine, and among other things it means that some important situations may be recorded and distributed around the world so that interested people can see them. It also means – this is the down side – that there is already a deluge of what are really home movies sent into the world that should better stay in the living room. And, many other important things will be filmed indifferently and fall by the wayside.

If You Build It brings up these questions.

The events it chronicles may have meaning for lots of us, but it isn’t filmed well enough. The story is about some disaffected high school kids in Bertie County, North Carolina. A couple of young architect/designers established a class for these kids in which they learned to design and then they built a farmers market in their struggling community. The film shows the rundown buildings and rotting infrastructure of this depressed area.

Bertie County is on the ropes economically and socially; kids have nothing to look forward to, and this pragmatic approach to teaching and learning apparently did both the place and the kids a lot of good. You might call the story uplifting.

But If You Build It is not much of a documentary, or maybe a better way to put it is that it’s limited.

Even though the picture trumpets how these young architect/teachers are working on the cutting edge of education and social change, it’s an oddly dull-edged kind of documentary. It tells its story through the voices of the teachers, the kids and a few people in the area, but the voices don’t have much character. The talk sounds like a bland love-fest, with the students and a few others chanting in unison that what they did was good, and it becomes unbelievable, like soothing public relations.

The films of our greatest documentary filmmakers – Ken Burns and Errol Morris for instance – are dedicated to exploring how it takes many different points of view and tons of context even to approximate what may be true. This movie needs some grit, so that you know it’s actually about human beings instead of paper cut-outs.

Credit Courtesy of O’Malley Creadon Productions
Director Patrick Creadon. From "If You Build It," a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

If You Build It takes its title from the sentimental baseball movie Field of Dreams, and it is equally complacent and sentimental itself. It loves the kids, which is nice, and it praises the ingenuity and the creativity the project unleashed in them, but it asks few questions, and mostly shows sights of little consequence, scenes are like clichéd postcards of Bertie County.

A kid named Cameron is filmed jumping into a swimming hole, while someone speaks of him as a kid without purpose. That may be, but a shot of Cameron swimming doesn’t go to that idea. Later, Emily, one-half of the teaching team, says that she and her partner Matt had an argument – but what you see on screen is more like tepid disagreement.

If You Build It gives too little visual context. If the farmers market is important to the place, show the place. You get the feeling that the camera mostly arrives after something has happened, that you just get to hear about it over images of people sitting around. If you’re making a film, you have to find the images that tell that story. The picture has to show the changes in the place and the students. The great but not well-known filmmaker Robert M. Young says, “Put the camera where the story is,” and that hasn’t happened here.

You watch the film hoping the project succeeds, but you want to see the struggle because that will make all this activity matter, and there is no struggle to see.

The tone of If You Build It is strangely flat. Nothing happens that forces people to show who they are and what they’re made of. Too often the movie films the people sitting around in minor self-conscious conversations.

What’s the drama in these events? Where are the people tested?

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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