It's like a moment out of The Blair Witch Project. The day is racing to a close and the shadows are long and deep when Alan Spearman and Lance Murphy decide it might be best to split up. The Johnson grass is head-high on the forested northern tip of Mud Island. Old paths have been hidden by new growth since the last time the two filmmakers visited.
"Maybe we should try to get in and get out while there's still light," Spearman suggests, asking if anybody is particularly susceptible to poison ivy.
Spearman and Murphy are looking for a ruined rubber canoe that once belonged to their friend Jerry, a homeless man who kept his camp along the river on what would have been high-dollar real estate had he lived in a house rather than an improvised tent. It's a spiritual touchstone for the professional journalists and neophyte filmmakers who've spent the past five years working on Nobody, a documentary following Jerry's incredible river journey from Marion, Indiana, to Memphis.
"It's over here," Spearman eventually calls out, maneuvering through a thicket of vines and spider webs. Murphy, who had been exploring to the east, announces that he's on his way and crunches through the leaves and branches. The two men fawn over the deflated yellow boat like a lost treasure.
"You know, Jerry used to write things on the canoe," Murphy says. "It's gone now, but there was writing all over it. There was a note from his son."
Jerry came into Spearman's and Murphy's life unexpectedly when The Commercial Appeal photographers received a phone call from the Coast Guard, who thought somebody might be interested in talking to the good-natured homeless man who'd given up on society after the death of his mother and fell in love with America's big river.
"He's really like a modern-day Huck Finn," Murphy says. "We wanted to show that these people that Mark Twain wrote about are still around. And still pretty much the same."
He and Spearman work their way to the riverbank and look out over the dark waters swirling with the last pink and purple rays of the sun. They marvel at how the river can become an addiction and speak enviously of the vistas known only to those who live on the river.
Jerry is an alcoholic and a drifter but he's not a panhandler. At one point in the film he declares, "I'm too proud to ever ask anybody for a dime."
Nobody opens with a shot of Jerry shaving, watching his reflection in a small, jagged shard of mirror. It then moves from one breathtaking and provocative image to the next, calling into question all of our culture's preconceived notions about homelessness and community.
From one homeless man's recipe for cooking up pigeon and possum to Jerry's own revealing commentaries on birth, death, and what lies between, Nobody alternately repulses and intrigues.
Spearman and Murphy have taken a formal approach to their film, and the contrived images may get under the skin of documentary purists.
"We're prepared for that," Spearman says confidently, brandishing a flashlight. "Now maybe we should try to get out of the woods while we can still see where we're going."
(Hometowner Documentary Competition)
Thursday, October 19th