Local filmmaker's DIY craft documentary captures an exploding scene
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Halfway through Milwaukee artist-filmmaker Faythe Levine’s DIY craft documentary Handmade Nation, which premiered Thursday at the Oriental Theatre, I asked myself: “Can the mundane be considered revolutionary?” For Levine, the answer is “yes,” especially now that craft making has moved beyond the realm of old ladies and sock puppets and into something younger, more vital, and possibly even world-changing.
Levine interviewed more than 50 artists around the country for the 65-minute film. A number of them—most notably Stephanie Syjuco, who runs the San Francisco-based clothing company Anti-Factory—approach craft making as an explicit commentary on the damage wrought by mass production: the economic peril wrought by big-box retailers, the horrors of sweat-shop labor, and capitalism’s overall negative impact on the environment. Not playing by the rules of the global economy—and embracing environmentally-friendly materials and recycled fabrics to minimize waste and consumption—makes the indie arts and crafts movement an entry point for an ongoing discussion on how and what we choose to consume.
Not that Handmade Nation is a strident manifesto, though it is a bit dry at times, as Levine struggles with a question at the heart of the indie arts and crafts movement: How does one effectively portray the private, individual act of creation as both dynamic and political? Some artists seem to realize the inherent limitations of creating solely within the private sphere, and Levine usefully highlights a number of artist collectives intent on pushing the movement more and more into public spaces, including Houston-based Knitta, who swath the steel and concrete of the anonymous urban landscape with hand-made knit products. As that model of frenzied economic activity seems to be self-destructing right before our very eyes, Handmade Nation encourages us to think small as we begin to re-imagine our roles as both consumers and producers.