WFF2008: Interview with "Urban Explorers" filmmaker Melody Gilbert
Post by Katjusa Cisar on 3/19/2008 1:30pm
Melody Gilbert didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t make her documentary Ã¢â‚¬Å“Urban Explorers: Into the DarknessÃ¢â‚¬Â to encourage people to try urban exploring. If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d been chased by police, gotten lost in the Parisian Catacombs, tiptoed across rotting floors and scaled 10-foot fences with film gear in tow, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be pretty cautious, too.
Urban exploring isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t for the untrained or casual seeker of cheap thrills, she says. Although, when you think about it, the hobby is cheap (you donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really need fancy gear or special outfits). And thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no denying the thrill of exploring sewer systems, abandoned buildings and other places people arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t supposed to trespass. But you need to know what youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re getting yourself into.
Gilbert, a 38-year-old filmmaker from St. Paul, traveled around the world to document the growing popularity of urban exploring, or Ã¢â‚¬Å“urbexing.Ã¢â‚¬Â You may have seen her film Ã¢â‚¬Å“WholeÃ¢â‚¬Â (about people who want to be amputees) a few years ago at the Wisconsin Film Festival. SheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also done documentaries about people who get Ã¢â‚¬Å“Married at the MallÃ¢â‚¬Â and children who literally lead Ã¢â‚¬Å“A Life Without Pain.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Gilbert got her start as a broadcast journalist, but quit about five years ago to "do the crazy thing" and make her own films.
"Before, I had to pitch a story. I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a lot of chances to delve into projects in depth. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s such a joy now to pursue something on my own without asking permission," she says.
Gilbert first heard of urban explorers in December of 2003 when St. Paul police arrested six men in the middle of the night on suspicion of terrorism.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The men had two-way radios, flashlights, night vision equipment and maps at a time when the U.S. was on high alert for terrorism,Ã¢â‚¬Â she writes in her directorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s statement. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It turns out that the men werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t terrorists at all. They were Ã¢â‚¬Ëœurban explorers.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬Â
After spending time going on missions with local Twin Cities explorers, Gilbert soon started traveling around the country and to Paris and Scotland to document the activity.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“There were a couple hairy moments. There was a moment in the Catacombs where I feared for my life. I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know how to get out or where I was,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says. In another city, she had to run from the police.
Urban explorers try to be as respectful as possible of the spaces theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re exploring, she says. They aim to make trespassing their only crime, leaving everything the way they found it or better and taking only photographs.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Nicknames are part of the culture. It started out that way because of the legality issues. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m just Melody, but everybody else is, like, Katwoman or Danarchy. The names reflect part of their character and how they explore,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says.
Katwoman is a Ã¢â‚¬Å“deeply devoted ChristianÃ¢â‚¬Â who attends a conservative college where even dancing is illegal. Having a nickname allows her to keep her identity as an urban explorer separate from the rest of her life, says Gilbert.
Other urban explorers she met got into it as photographers: Ã¢â‚¬Å“They take pictures of sites that are being demolished, sites that at one point were important to our culture. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re surprisingly beautiful.Ã¢â‚¬Â
As a hobby, urban exploring is Ã¢â‚¬Å“exploding,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says, comparing its rise in popularity to punk rock, which started off Ã¢â‚¬Å“really off the mapÃ¢â‚¬Â then became more mainstream: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The internet makes it easier to find each other. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a hobby you can do that doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t cost anything. It doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t involve drinking or drugs. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re active and youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re doing something with friends. That appeals to a lot of people.Ã¢â‚¬Â
As she shepherds Ã¢â‚¬Å“Urban ExplorersÃ¢â‚¬Â through the festival circuit, sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s already got a couple new documentaries cooking: one about Walter Mondale, Vice President to Jimmy Carter and a fellow Minnesotan; the other about a Ã¢â‚¬Å“divorce campÃ¢â‚¬Â in Minnesota where Ã¢â‚¬Å“women learn the messy details of how to get divorced and plan for the future.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Urban Explorers: Into the DarknessÃ¢â‚¬Â plays in the Memorial UnionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Play Circle Theater on Saturday, April 5 at 6 p.m. and Sunday, April 6 at 1:15 p.m. Visit www.uer.ca to learn more about the Ã¢â‚¬Å“urbexÃ¢â‚¬Â community and to connect with other urban explorers in the Midwest.