For The Independent
A child’s toy pulled from a box sent two local filmmakers on a five-year odyssey that took them around the world and resulted in a documentary that is reaping awards on the film festival circuit.
“Where’s the Fair?” traces the decline of U.S. participation in worlds’ fairs and expos. Producers Jeffrey Ford and Brad Bear are in talks with distributors to market the film for wider viewing.
Since this summer, the feature-length film has won awards for best documentary at the Knoxville, Cape Fear Independent and West Virginia Filmmakers’ film festivals, and been an official selection at festivals in Toronto, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Louisville.
Ford and Bear hope to parlay those accolades into a distribution deal that will put the film before a wider audience, perhaps on one of the major cable networks. Beyond that, they hope it will help focus and sway public opinion on what they have come to believe is an important but neglected venue for sharing the American dream with the world.
Ford, a Cincinnati director and producer who learned his craft at Ohio University Southern’s electronic media program, traces the film’s beginnings to the most unlikely place: a vintage toy show in Knoxville, Tenn.
That was where he found an old Viewmaster and some reels to go with it.
When he slid the reels into the device, Ford found himself looking at three-dimensional views of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Although he’d never attended one, he was captivated by the massive display of the cultural wealth of nations.
Before long he was planning a trip to Spain to attend Expo 2008 in Zaragoza, and when he learned there would be no U.S. pavilion there, he wondered why. “Why wouldn’t the United States be involved in the biggest peaceful gathering of people on earth to celebrate science, art and culture?” he said.
He found that the last American city to host a fair was New Orleans in 1984 and participation in other fairs has been spotty at best.
The more he learned about the gradual disengagement of the United States from world’s fair participation, the more he found himself shocked, confused, angered and disappointed.
He called Bear, a longtime professional associate and the special projects producer for the OUS electronic media program, and the two started on a journey that would take them to seven countries and three world’s fairs.
Ford shot striking footage at three fairs: Zaragoza, Spain in 2008, Shanghai in 2010 and Yeosu, South Korea in 2012.
He interviewed major corporate and government players in world’s fair production and politics, traveling to locations as glamorous as Paris and as out of the way as Bozeman, Montana.
Archival footage from past fairs is sprinkled throughout, including some clips that date back to the early 1900s, possibly shot by Thomas Edison himself.
Ford and Bear found and documented a gradual erosion of American commitment to the grand spectacles, in part because of the enormous cost but also for geopolitical reasons.
With the ending of the Cold War, the U.S. seemingly no longer needed the public relations value of an elaborate world’s fair pavilion, and federal legislators were unwilling to underwrite fair expenses.
They found that U.S. disengagement did not go unnoticed internationally, and that lackluster pavilions or outright absence were widely considered snubs to the host countries.
They believe the U.S. is squandering opportunities to share core American values along with American technology and culture, but are somewhat heartened because their research revealed individual American cities are still clamoring and posturing themselves to bid for future fairs.
That would require the U.S. to rejoin the organizing body Bureau International des Expositions, from which it withdrew membership funding in 2001.
The festivals have given them exposure they hope will fuel the distribution effort. Festival exposure is hugely important considering more than 50,000 films are made every year, Bear said. That theirs rose to the top is significant given that around 15,000 films are submitted to festival juries every year.
Commercial success is not the point — few documentaries make money and Bear said they would be happy to break even on the entirely self-funded project. There are intangible rewards, however. The festival exposure and awards boost their standing in the film community and their professional networks have blossomed.
Also, documentary producers make films to send a message. Theirs is to revive the dormant U.S. interest in the spectacular showcases of national achievement that have been part of the international scene since 1851, when the Crystal Palace dazzled the world in London’s Great Exhibition.
“I hope it touches people in new ways,” Bear said. “Maybe people will be inspired and maybe people will travel the world.”
The five-year investment was as much a personal journey as an international one for Ford. “It was interesting to commit ourselves not just to bitching and complaining and moving on to the next project but acting instead,” he said. “We had to act and that’s the hardest thing in the world.
“It’s easy in the modern world to believe there are no more great adventures, but we learned there are, if you follow the path and commit.”
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.