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To the LGBTQ visitors that flock to Cape Cod every summer, Provincetown, Massachusetts is an enchanted mecca of acceptance, a place for hedonistic partying or chill relaxation, catering to all tastes. Mischa Richter glimpses that world only obliquely through dimly lit windows onto the main drag, Commercial Street, in his contemplative first documentary feature, I Am a Town. An immersive portrait of townies both living and dead, this a delicate, elegiac work made by a trusted member of the diverse community, quietly honoring the place’s roots as a settlement of Portuguese immigrants, a fishing village and later an artists’ colony.
After premiering pre-lockdown earlier this year at the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight in New York, the film took its hometown bow at the Provincetown Film Festival Reimagined, a modified, partly online event that opened with I Am a Town at the nearby Wellfleet Drive-In.
Richter’s background as a photographer is evident in the illuminating eye he and cinematographer Richard Stewart train on their handful of eccentric subjects, as well as the unfussy yet often startling beauty of the painterly landscapes. A puff of dusty pink clouds at one point that burns with the final faint glow of sunset being engulfed by darkness looks like something by Turner, as do hazy images where the line separating the wintry sky from the water is barely discernible.
The impressionistic no-frills approach eschews non-diegetic music and identification of interviewees, along with attribution for the evocative excerpts of prose and poetry read by participants both onscreen and off. This may prove frustrating for viewers wanting a more conventionally informative examination of the town, with its various identities somehow coalescing in peaceful co-existence, even if the suggestions of vanishing ways of life are draped in melancholy. But there’s enormous reward in just letting the movie wash over you. The rawness and rough edges of its pensive vérité style frequently reveal a visual eloquence with echoes of nonfiction essayists from the Maysles Brothers to Chris Marker.
Richter is a discreet presence throughout, heard here and there asking questions but mostly remaining silent, allowing his subjects to talk about their lives and their relationships both to the town and the wild nature that envelops it.
One of the most voluble interviewees is Kiah Coble, a young artist who spent time caring for Pat de Groot until her death in 2018 at age 88. Coble speaks with deep respect for the late painter’s connection to the land and the waters in which she swam or kayaked daily. It seems odd that we barely get to see the small-scale seascapes for which de Groot was famous, but the woman behind them is conjured in Coble’s recollections of her stories about her husband, their house and dogs, and even in the refreshing candor with which she offsets her admiration. “She was my friend,” Coble says, but she also admits de Groot could be “a fucking asshole — so self-righteous.”
The complex personalities explored include Paul Tasha, a sculptor working with metal in his ramshackle studio deep in the woods, who laments the disappearance of favorite places he knows, tranquil glades that haunt his “development nightmares.” He describes himself as a combination of “thin-skinned and bad-tempered,” making him ideally suited for the solitary life.
Among other subjects are the writer Roger Skillings, who reads from his work while silhouetted against the dying light of the day in his window; and Freddie Rocha Jr., a beloved local fixture who proudly strips down to show a lean torso that he says was like that of a bear in his youth. The fact that both these men have passed on since filming was completed adds to the frequent impression of being in the company of ghosts. The iconic, so-called last of the dory fishermen, Eddie Ritter, to whom the film is dedicated, is another presence that looms large even in his absence.
Some subjects are observed from a fly-on-the-wall distance, like the four generations of Portuguese women coming together to make a family meal, or street musician Will Harrington, singing Iris DeMent or Tom Waits or his own composition while playing a battered piano in a laneway.
Photographer Ryan McGinley talks about how safe he feels displaying affection openly in P-town with his partner Mark as opposed to certain neighborhoods in New York. The kiss captured between them is a moment of transcendent intimacy. And a member of Provincetown’s large Jamaican community, dominated by women who hold down three or four jobs, speaks of coming from a homophobic culture into a place where interaction with LGBTQ people — both tourists and locals — is a regular part of life, pointing out how that quotidian experience erases prejudices.
Some of the loveliest interludes are those that indicate the filmmaker’s friendship with Tasha. The latter describes his conflicted feelings about being raised to hunt on land in his family for generations, and the ways in which he tries to atone for taking an animal’s life. The images that accompany those thoughts — of Tasha on horseback on grassy Atlantic beach dunes that probably look much the same as they did to the Pilgrims in 1620 — are presented with a seemingly casual simplicity, and yet they speak volumes about the attachment of these rugged year-round residents to their environment.
Throughout the film, shots of woodsy roads, beach paths, lonely cabins, inland ponds, boats on open sea, water lapping under docks or washing over rocks and algae, even the busier streets in town with cyclists and skateboarders, all of these serve to draw out the indelible sense of place that informs these people’s lives. Richter and Stewart shot on 35mm film, and the color has the gorgeous warmth of vintage Kodak, bathed in the soft light that anyone who’s ever spent time on Cape Cod will recognize. Communion with the elements is very much a part of the film’s sound design. And editor Marie-Hélène Dozo almost imperceptibly provides structure while maintaining a loose, freeform fluidity.
Taking his cue in part from journalist Mary Heaton Vorse’s 1942 Provincetown chronicle, Time and the Town (excerpts from which are read by Coble), Richter coaxes his subjects to tell individual stories that become a collective song about a place founded on principles of acceptance, freedom and inclusion, ideas very much relevant to the current discourse in our divided country. Leaving key questions implicit, Richter’s film considers the future of P-town as its soaring real estate market, commercialization and rising cost of living force out locals.
“One thing’s for sure,” says Skillings, reading from his work. “You can stay here forever but you’ll never be a native if you’re not.” Richter grew up in Provincetown and his artist family has been based there since the 1950s; anyone who ever fell in love with the place will be moved by the spiritual authenticity of his uniquely transporting meditation.
Production company: King Bee Productions, Under the Influence Productions, Land’s End Pictures
Director: Mischa Richter
Producers: Mischa Richter, Richard Stewart, Ryan Hawke, Emily Mortimer
Executive producers: Lizzie Nastro, Alexandra Shiva
Director of photography: Richard Stewart
Sound: Marcelo C. De Oliveira
Sound designer: Fred Demolder
Venue: Provincetown Film Festival Reimagined
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