Note: This review is from a sneak peek of Vannin’ presented by the Chicago Cinema Society on November 16th at the Patio Theater.
As much as I like documentaries, it seems there is an overwhelming belief that only those films that focus on difficult, often dark subject matter are worth watching. Obviously, there is a long history of the documentary being used to urge social, political, or environmental change for the better. In those instances, the documentary format transcends a piece of storytelling or reporting to become something more important than what the filmmakers set out to create. But those films are rare and it’s unfair to derisively sniff at documentaries that seek to simply shine a light on a niche culture that “outsiders” normally would know nothing about.
Vannin’ is a film that wants to show the world a society that is disappearing from the American landscape. But instead of being a mournful, high-minded dissection of the vanishing world the film is exploring, directors Andrew J. Morgan and Nick Nummerdor offer up a raucous celebration of the vannin’ lifestyle that has that one element that many documentaries are missing: entertainment.
The term “vannin’” refers to the practice of customizing vans for maximum external flash and internal comfort. The vans in the film sport everything from detailed murals on their sides to interiors that are set up as bedrooms/living rooms/bars. But while the film showcases several eye-popping examples of these customized party homes-on-wheels, the focus is more on the people who have made their hobby into a lifestyle.
Shot over four days at the 40th National Truck-In (also known as the “Van Nationals”) at Elkhorn, WI, Morgan and Nummerdor mix sit-down interviews with several “vanners” and fly-on-the-wall footage of the various events and parties that have kept many of the same people returning for the Truck-In every year since its inception.
While that description makes the film sound like a traditional documentary, Vannin’ manages to take that familiar format and loosen it up, allowing the audience to get a feel for the party-first atmosphere and camaraderie that so many of the vanners seem to cherish about the gathering.
While there is an effort made through the interviews to explain the origins of the Truck-In and the various clubs that take part, Morgan and Nummerdor make the wise decision to let the interview subjects just tell stories as opposed to rigid question-and-answer sessions. If there is a guide to the history and particulars of the Truck-In and Vannin’ culture among the interviewees, it’s Howard Furtak. His interviews manage to be both informative and entertaining as he tries to set the record straight about what the vannin’ culture really represents—usually while shirtless.
Other interview subjects provide different views of what brought them into such a niche world. While their stories differ in specifics, they all point to the same feeling of being outcasts from mainstream society who found acceptance and friendship in the vannin’ community. This feeling of kinship and acceptance runs throughout Vannin’, providing warmth to the film between the numerous scenes of drinking, van demonstrations, drinking, archival footage from the 60’s and ‘70s, and drinking.
If I have a complaint about the film, it’s that at a fleet sixty minutes, it never delves much further than the celebratory surface. While the good time the vanners are having is portrayed with gusto, hints at the bittersweet nature of belonging to a culture that’s disappearing peek through. Some of the older vanners point out that the turnout for Truck-In’s has decreased precipitously from its high point in the ‘70s. Others mention that fewer and fewer vans are being manufactured. And while there are some vanners in their twenties and thirties in the film, their numbers are relatively few. The writing on the wall seems to be clear that this is a disappearing piece of Americana, but Morgan and Nummerdor never delve very far into this sad fact.
Other than that one concern, Vannin’ works well as an entertaining look at a lifestyle most people probably know nothing about (I certainly had no idea going into the film). It does a great job of capturing the exuberance of vanners for their custom rides and their affection for their peers. It’s a funny, surprisingly sweet film.
After the screening, Morgan and Nummerdor, accompanied by vanners Howard Furtak and David “Matchstick” Brooks, attempted a Q&A. A large portion of the audience was made up of vanners who appeared in the film. Their enthusiasm provided for a fun screening (especially when they repeatedly called for Furtak to “Put a shirt on!” whenever he appeared in the film) as they cheered on when spotting themselves or friends in the film. But when it came time for a Q&A with the speakers, their contributions were largely limited to wondering which van club Morgan and Nummerdor were going to join. Still, a few nuggets of interest escaped the chaos:
- Morgan and Nummerdor are planning to enter the film into several film festivals to be held early next year.
- The directors hope to have a DVD release for the film at some point in Summer 2014.
- Furtak explained how wary vanners are of outside filmmakers or journalists for fear of being mocked in the finished film. He then told the story of how he met with Morgan and Nummerdor over several beers and gave them the thumbs-up to the rest of the community. It was a nice moment in the otherwise hectic Q&A that pointed out how the directors avoided the easy angle of turning the vanners into a joke to be laughed at.
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