2005-11-04 / Columnists

Tulsa OK’s Sarnoff/Sarnoff KO’s Tulsa

by Susan Hartenstein

Robert Sarnoff accepting Award for Best Docudrama at the Bare Bones International Independent Film Festival.
Robert Sarnoff accepting Award for Best Docudrama at the Bare Bones International Independent Film Festival. “The little movie that could.” That is how the daughter of Robert Sarnoff, Editorial Cartoonist for The Wave, has referred to her father’s film, No Rooms Lobby. Made for only $500, filmed on a digital video camera and running just under 20 minutes, this “little movie” set in and filmed in a local SRO, has won the Award for Best Docudrama at the the Tulsa Oklahoma Bare Bones International Independent Film Festival (Sarnoff was also asked to speak at a seminar); is an “official selection” at The Queens International Film Festival; The National Coalition for The Homeless has requested a copy for their archives; The Queens Cinema Collection requested a copy for their library and they have invited Sarnoff to speak at their Movies that Matter program. And this is just the beginning of this latest chapter in the story of “the little movie that could.”

To briefly review the story of this film about which I wrote in my September 23, 2005 column, N o Rooms Lobby is described by its writer/director, Bob Sarnoff, as “a tender, poignant portrait of a modern day Ulysses living on the fringe of society.” It follows its protagonist, Charlie, through his days of hard, menial labor and into the refuge of his one-room “home” in an SRO. Here, he has the comfort of his own surroundings, his memories (sometimes difficult ones), his cherished photographs and the company of his only steadfast friend, his dog. Shot almost exclusively in the 116th Street area — on the street and in one of its SRO’s – it stars, ironically, John Baxter, the controversial real-life owner of that SRO. The other actors in the film are, for the most part, people who populate the SRO’s and streets of the area, further capturing the grit and reality of the subject.

I sat down recently with Sarnoff to discuss his experiences in attending the Bare Bones Film Festival in Oklahoma – experiences both surprising and fulfilling. For Sarnoff, the most surprising aspect of the festival was to win an award. That was “part A” of the surprise. “Part B” was the category for which the award was given – Best Docudrama. Sarnoff had not thought of his opus as a documentary-type film. It was scripted, by Sarnoff himself, and was the story of a fictional character, though based on people he had known during his work in a men’s homeless shelter. He describes it as a short narrative film. Yet, here were fellow filmmakers at the festival congratulating him for making a great documentary and here he was, being honored in this category. Sarnoff is justifiably flattered by this designation. As a writer, he penned a script that accurately reflected the truth and texture of the life about which he was writing. As the director, he encouraged the degree of improvisation that resulted in the perception that what was being recorded were actual events in these people’s lives. Indeed, each “actor’s” real life was allowed by the director to “feed” the immediacy of the story. John Baxter’s performance was so natural that he was perceived as not being an actor, but an actual resident of the SRO.

Sarnoff reflects upon the creative journey of this, his first film, with insight, humor and introspection. You make a movie, he says, and see it as a particular endeavor. You mail off the VHS to various festivals, not knowing how people will react to it. It is still just this cassette. But then the e-mail comes informing you that it is now an “official selection” of that festival. Suddenly it takes on a whole new persona. You say to yourself, this must be a pretty good film. It wins an award and you figure, it must be a very good film. The genesis continues. The audience and other filmmakers viewing your project express their impressions and interpretations of it. And the creator realizes that it is more of a film than that which he thought he created. It needs the eyes, ears and hearts of the audience to respond, to truly be the entity it is. Each viewer, Sarnoff comments, comes to the film with his or her own life stories that relate to and build the truths of the film. For example, John Wooley, who wrote a piece about No Rooms Lobby for The Tulsa World , that city’s largest daily newspaper, saw the security guard/ narrators as “celestial” and omniscient.” This was a perception the director had not anticipated.

As a result of its screenings at the festival, the film will be broadcast on Virginia Public Access TV in the Washington D.C. area. Sarnoff was interviewed on global cast radio, The Jerry Pippin Show, which will soon be available on the Internet. Exposure in the various press media helps fulfill Sarnoff’s goals for his film. In his words, “This epidemic of poverty plagues the richest nation in the world…especially in the wake of Katrina, Rita and Wilma. That the 20 minute film provoked controversy along these lines was rewarding. People reacted to this socio/political issue and strongly voiced their views. If the movie can stimulate thought and motivate conversation, open an eye or a wallet, during this national dilemma, then it has achieved part of its purpose.” According to Sarnoff, most of the inhabitants of Baxter’s SRO work. Perhaps like Charlie, some work at menial, low-paying jobs that others do not want to do. For his efforts, Charlie is looked down upon, cheated, and regarded with suspicion. The film subtly confronts this irony. I am told that there was a Tulsa man at the festival who was moved by the film to remark to its director, “Where in the Bible or the Talmud is it a sin to be poor?”

The reaction at the Tulsa festival to his movie has opened up a whole new world for the artist/playwright/actor. Tulsa, Sarnoff tells me, is one of the places outside New York and L.A. that is on the cutting edge of filmmaking. The award and affirmations received, the way in which the directors of the festival, Shirona and Oscar Ray made him feel welcomed, the fellow filmmakers with whom he felt such a kinship, the offers he received to make other films and his own creative drive have now encouraged Sarnoff to extend this newest chapter in his life. There are more films of his own for which Sarnoff wishes to find funding. The ability to foster and nurture the talents of those with whom one works, the ability to write a script and be able to pick up a camera to film it and be one’s own boss are very appealing to Robert Sarnoff. The Queens International Film Festival will be held November 17-20. Visit: www.queensfilmfestival.com for more information and scheduling. Who knows what will be the next chapter for “the little movie that could”?

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