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A Documentary About a Granny's House Upends the Medium

 A Documentary About A New Jersey Home Can Save Us From Fake News

Sundance's 306 Hollywood re-examines truth in the media and how to get meaningful representation onscreen.

Activists are obsessed with space. From conversations about safe spaces, queer spaces, space in the entertainment industry, space in the intersectional movements, we're always searching for the right to take some space up.

When Stonewall became a national monument, the celebration wasn't about preserving an old inn but recognizing the history that lived within it. When gay bars disappear, the community doesn't worry about finding a new spot to grab a cosmo. They fret about the future of stars aligning there, of having an address that a legacy can ship its postcards to.

There's a reason concentration camps stay open, or why many want Confederate statues taken down, not but not melted down. Places are ever changing exhibits in the museum of life. They're testimonies to the truth in an age where truth has lost its object permanence.

"Using one place, one very unremarkable, very normal place as this entryway or this portal to all of the bigger questions in the world just felt like a really captivating idea," says Elan Bogarin, co-director of 306 Hollywood, a new visionary documentary where she, and her co-director/brother, Jonathan, conduct an archaeological dig of their deceased grandmother's home. "We don't necessarily look at the home or private spaces as something that actually leads up to bigger societal issues," she explains, "The truth of the matter is that the home and the family is what defines each one of us, it defines how we understand our society, it defines our relationship to ourselves and this society itself."

The film, which was featured on the experimental NEXT slate at this year's Sundance, is a love letter to the ordinary through extraordinary storytelling. Through fashion, science, still art, dance, and a lot of dreaming, the two have created a "magical realism documentary," which transforms a what they call "some crappy little house in New Jersey" into its own universe.

"Our challenge was we had a character who was a grandmother, who was an ordinary person," Jonathan Bogarin told The Advocate. "We wanted to show that this ordinary person is actually very remarkable and that everybody has ordinary people in their lives that, to them, are also remarkable."

The documentary is not just experimental, but an experiment in itself. Yes, the film has experts and plenty of facts. But they are in the background of the grand landscape the Bogarins created, using magical elements to visualize the emotional truths of their grandmother's history.

"Documentaries are just traditionally looked at, at least in the most traditional format, you've got talking heads and interviews," Elan notes. "And the thing, though, is that you have the actual experience, the lived experience. We wanted to see if we could think in the actual storytelling emotional intelligence of the story, and place that into something that was true."

In their case, emotional storytelling required using as many visual languages they could. They borrowed items from natural history museums, Catholic churches, contemporary photography, installation art, film genres and brought them all into the non-fiction space.

306 Hollywood is a visually enchanting, narrative pioneering, creative escape. It's the kind of movie that makes you question how much more invigorating, trailblazing, and inspired movies can be. But underneath all the artistry, this a political film.

"The temporary situation where people are trying to obscure facts and trying to obscure what their perspective is, I think we're actually just trying to be very transparent about it," Jonathan makes of the fake news era. "It's not just words that are considered to be truth. It's not just what someone says is considers to be truth, the way someone experiences something, the way someone has a lived experience where you're actually going through it, processing it through your emotions, through your imagination, through your own point of view. It's something that is baked into media anyway but we were trying to bring that to the forefront where part of the conversation is about how you actually experience something."

The ambitious attempt to break and restructure the medium comes from a basic activist desire -- to tell the stories of those not traditionally in media. By shifting perspectives and incorporating numerous art forms, they empower the subject of their film. The goal, as Elan describes, is "having someone who, in many ways, has one of the least powerful positions in our society, of an old woman, and allowing that character to become the authority and to actually tell us about the fact that lived experience is worthwhile."

A film about their grandmother's history is somehow filled with the now. It delivers an intimacy and emotional history with someone who's dead before production started, asking necessary questions about truth. It also is a masterclass in creating empathy in the face of prejudice.

"Our film is about a woman, about an immigrant family," Jonathan notes, "In an environment when misogyny and xenophobia and racism are very prevalent in our national dialogue, people aren't really finding ways to bridge divides and get beyond rhetoric. We tried to create a story that would give an opening to anybody to watch it and see themselves and see their own experiences."

Spotlighting the ignored through celebrating the ordinary requires extraordinary measures. The Bogarins jumped through storytelling hoops, enlisting choreographers, sculptors, bookbinders, calligraphers, cinematographers, and editors for something simple: to magnify a voice. For Elan, it was all necessary. "The only way for us to start telling stories of people who aren't traditionally in media, who aren't famous, is to invent the form."

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