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Sparrow Songs is a documentary project by filmmaker Alex Jablonski and d.p. Michael Totten, who are making and posting one short doc film per month on their site for a whole year. They are six episodes in, and the films are quite wonderful. Averaging about eight minutes, they are poetic essays that capture the essences of specific places, people, and moments, and that then, without pretension, build these observances into larger statements about love, truth, community, and the ways we are choosing to live our lives.

The films include Porn Star Karoke, about the crowd that gathers weekly at an L.A. club for an evening of karoke with adult movie stars. In Donut Shop, the filmmakers insert themselves into their film as they wonder why more people won’t talk to them during a night spent at a 24-hour donut joint. In the most recent, L’Arche, the filmmakers visit a home for the developmentally disabled in which the residents are cared for in a warm, non-institutional environment; they focus not only on the residents but also on the caregivers, who include a young woman who has just left a monastery. With their artful framings, precise editing, and sensitive use of sound and music, Jablonski and Totten capture the quest of everyone at L’Arche to find purer, less complicated ways of living.

Sparrow Songs is a beguiling project that gains its power by the commitment shown to it by its filmmakers. Their web page contains thumbnails of the six episodes finished so far and blank spots for the six that are yet to come. The knowledge that these are not just disparate short films but rather installments in time-based project give Sparrow Songs a quiet gravity. Watching these films, you find yourself drawing connections between them. You watch — and wait — for themes to develop, and you project onto the filmmakers an evolving recognition of their authorship. It is slow-motion filmmaking dispensed in short, elegantly realized segments.

After watching L’Arche, which I’ve embedded below, I visited the Sparow Songs site, signed up for the newsletter, and checked out the blog., which contains posts explaining the individual pieces as well as the impetus behind the project. From one entitled “This is the Why, Part Two” on why the films are premiering online instead of at festivals:

What we’re doing with Sparrow Songs is – in part – trying to find a different way. Instead of asking the question, “Is this worthy of being seen?” We’re giving ourselves a directive, “Make this worth seeing,” and we’re doing it each month.

And so far, each month different blogs and news sites embed our films or write short pieces about the project, but from all these different sources the result remains the same: people see the films.

The hope then is that over time some percentage of that initial audience – no matter how they came to the films or to the site — will come to believe that the work of this project is worth seeing – both the successes and the failures. Moreover, after a time they won’t need the imprint of a festival to trust that the work is worth watching, they’ll have come to know it themselves. With that the viewership grows and the audience itself becomes the validating force.

From one entitled “What Work Is,” that explores the relationship between the filmmakers’ emotional states — and employment status — and the work itself. And about why it’s free.

Sparrow Songs exists on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum: no one is paid to produce it and no one pays to see it. That’s all by design but oddly the free nature of it seems to add to its value rather than detract from it. If we were to charge for the episodes suddenly any criticism or questions about the episode would seem less like the sharing of ideas or inquisitiveness about the product, and more like a customer complaint.

To put it another way – there’s a great moment in the film Rivers and Tides during which Andy Goldsworthy stops in a snow-covered field, gathers two fistfulls of snow and tosses them high high into the air. The snow drifts back down, refracting the winter light, shining, sparkling. It’s an action no different from a child working paper into a boat and setting it down a small stream – it has no real purpose other than as both an expression and creation of a certain sense of joy.

To both the creator and the viewer it seems to say only one thing, “This moment, this moment, this moment, this moment, this moment…”

And then there’s this very recent post entitled “Thierry Guetta is Real.” Of course it’s referring to the mustachioed Frenchman at the center of Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop, who some believe is a fictional creation. I was one of those people simply because someone told me he was. As I walked into the screening at Sundance, not knowing much about the film, a friend leaned over to me and said, “You know it’s a mockumentary, right?” I didn’t, I said, but as I watched the film I laughed at what I thought was an actor’s canny, slightly over-the-top impersonation of a publicity hungry French artist. Hours later I ran into a friend who hadn’t seen the film. “You know it’s a mockumentary,” I said. “No it’s not,” he replied. “I know Thierry Guetta.” Well, so does Jablonski, and in his post he describes being hired to log and sort Guetta’s footage for a film that now seems to have been Exit at the Gift Shop.

You see, a year and a half ago I got a phone call from a friend looking for someone to help out on a potential documentary about Shepard Fairey. It was in the early stages but from what they said, they had tons and tons of unbelievable footage of Shepard bombing various cities all of shot by a crazy Frenchmen, named Thierry. I was finishing up my thesis film for UCLA, needed money and this seemed like a good fit. I was told that the job would entail logging the footage and sorting it. “Okay, not too bad,” I thought.

For those of you who’ve seen the Banksy film, you know that this wouldn’t be an easy job. Thierry shot everything. Everything. The camera never stopped rolling and the tapes were in no discernable order or grouping…..

When you spend that much time with someone’s footage it feels like you’re spending time with them. You see the world the way they saw it and you hear their questions, frustrations and observations. As bad as the footage was Thierry’s personality came through in the tapes — he speaks in non-sequiters, doesn’t respect people’s personal space and is distracted by all things equally. It was maddening.

In fact, if you want to replicate Thierry’s footage all you need to do is strap a camera to the hood of a muscle car, remove the steering wheel, hit record and drop a brick on the gas pedal.

All of this is to say that in the time I spent with Thierry’s footage I found that he is without a doubt absolutely fundamentally lacking any self-awareness.

Which is the exact reason people seem to think that he’s a character constructed by Banksy and Shepard. How could anyone possibly stand behind the work he does? How could someone keep a straight face while standing next to a painting of Larry King in a Warhol Marilyn wig? How could people believe him?

I don’t know, in fact I have no idea, but I know that Thierry Guetta is real because I spent weeks and weeks wishing he weren’t.

The above, about Banksy and Guetta, is a digression. What I really want to tell you about are the Sparrow Songs videos. Start with the most recent, below, and then visit the website and work your way through the rest. When you finish, like me, you’ll be looking forward to next month’s.

Episode 6 – L ‘Arche from Sparrow Songs on Vimeo.

(Hat tip: Susannah Breslin)

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