“A ‘region’ can be defined as any part of the United States with a distinct geographic, economic and cultural identity.” – Peter Lev, “Regional Cinema and the Films of Texas”
I like films with a distinct sense of place. While many movies are filmed right here in the city of Pittsburgh, very rarely does the city get to play itself. When it does, it’s thrilling to see on screen, as in Jack Reacher, where many bridges and neighborhoods were prominently featured. As awesome as I think Pittsburgh looked in that movie, I don’t think that movie was really about Pittsburgh, or that it couldn’t have been shot in any old Rustbelt city. Lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of regional cinema — smaller, independent movies that are so much about a specific region or place that they could not have been filmed anywhere else. There are lots of international examples of this kind of cinema, in films like Tuplan (about herdsman living on the isolated Kazakh steppes) and Forgotten Kingdom (about a small mountain village in the African country of Lesotho).
There are examples of regional cinema filmed here in America too. Just last weekend I watched a movie filmed in Pittsburgh that had flown under my radar. Homemakers (2014) is all about Irene, the lead singer of an Austin punk band who inherits her late grandfather’s dilapidated row house in Pittsburgh. Irene immediately takes off for Pittsburgh and begins drunkenly “renovating” the house, with the help of her equally lost cousin. The movie is low on plot, but features a strong central performance by Rachel McKeon, and really captures the ambience and magical geography of Pittsburgh. It was largely filmed in Bloomfield, and uses that neighborhood’s cramped and colorful architecture to good effect — I cannot imagine the film taking place anywhere else, as the city is as central to the story as Irene. Homemakers is available to rent online, but is not yet available through the library. I am hoping to remedy that in the future, but in the meantime, you can check out one of these three great examples of regional cinema:
The diversity of East Oakland, CA, and especially the Fruitvale region, are essential to the telling of this story. Juana Martinez is a single, working class mother living in Oakland and toiling away at part-time jobs. In the film’s beginning she helps her father with his roadside fruit cart and spends her afternoon cleaning a gym, before finally coming home to make her daughter and father dinner. While Juana clearly takes pride in her work and demonstrates admirable knife skills, she seems weighed down by the exhaustion and tedium or her routine.
But her passion is reignited after taking a job in the kitchen of a sushi restaurant, where she becomes enamored with the food and customs of her new co-workers, eventually deciding that against all odds (being a woman, being Latina) she wants to become a sushi chef. While the story is largely predictable, the culture clash aspects are handled with a light touch, and the true delight of the film lies in watching Juana discover her passion for Japanese cuisine and her discipline in acquiring the skills and precision needed to become a true sushi chef. It’s ultimately a story about process and work, and Juana’s dedication to her new chosen craft. That, and some truly mouthwatering sushi…and tacos.
Nicole is 22, just out of college, and adrift during her first summer as an “adult.” Tu Dors Nicole (“You’re Sleeping Nicole”) is a French-Canadian take on the late coming-of-age story. Nicole spends most of the summer in her small, sleepy Quebec town lounging around her parents’ house (they are gone for the summer), occasionally working at the local thrift store, trying to sleep (she’s developed insomnia), and wandering aimlessly around town and the Quebec countryside with her best friend Veronique. The two are joined at the hip (as evidenced by how their bikes are always locked-up together) but the arrival of Nicole’s brother and his bandmates threatens to upend the lifelong relationship between the two. Because of this waning friendship Tu Dors has earned comparisons to films like Ghost World and Frances Ha, which examine the complexities of female friendships, particularly when one’s identity is in flux.
The film was shot on gorgeous Black & White 35mm film , adding to it’s floating dream-like quality, and boasts a sweet and droll sense of humor. There are occasional touches of the surreal as well — my favorite running gag being the presence of the pre-pubescent Martin, a small boy whose voice has prematurely developed (the voice that comes out of his mouth sounds like that of a world-weary 45-year-old) who attempts to woo Nicole with poetic insights such as, “the heart has no age.” This film is a true hidden gem.
James is a young photographer working various odd jobs in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he meets Cooper, the party girl who totally upends his life. Even though Cooper lets him know that she will be leaving town for New York within a month, James can’t help falling in love with her and attempting to convince her to stay. This is a realistic relationship drama where the romantic obstacles will be familiar to many viewers — Cooper and James are financially in different situations and both must choose whether they want to pursue their professional goals, or pursue each other.
James is working towards his first gallery show, and the film is peppered with his unique split screen photography highlighting the beauty and local color of Tulsa. Impressively, the film was made for a mere $60,000 ($50,000 of which was raised through a Kickstarter campaign) and is very well done considering its meager budget. The central question of the film — is it more important who you love, or where you live — will appeal to anyone who’s restlessly grappled with the idea of finding a place to call “home.”
As always, if you happen to check out any of these films, let us know what you think in the comments section below. And feel free to share any recent movies that are floating your boat!
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Tara is a Librarian in the Music, Film & Audio Department, and loves to make film & book recommendations. Some of her interests include gardening, cookbooks, foreign films, comedy albums and devastating literary fiction.