Filmmaking as community spirit.
Despite being one of the more straightforward documentaries at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, The Peddler takes on a decidedly leftfield subject. Some years ago Daniel Burmeister was conscripted—by chance and without prior experience—into making a film for an organisation. He found himself bitten by a bug that he has yet to shake. Soon afterwards, he gave up his day job, devoting his life to purveying his self-termed “handmade films”. Not your everyday filmmaker, Burmeister works without financing, professional cast or crew, and with incredibly limited technical hardware (such as an outdated nineties-era home video camera) to make movie in small local communities where there are no cinemas and very little in the way of entertainment generally. Surprisingly, Burmeister’s films come out much better than you’d expect given the constraints!
The Peddler tracks, from beginning to end, Burmeister’s filmmaking experience in the small Argentinean village of Benjamin Gould, where life is as quiet and backward as any backwater town you might care to imagine. We see Burmeister as he waits impatiently to meet with the local mayor, in whose hands his fate for the next month rests; we see him ‘auditioning’ local kids at the school gymnasium (“show me ‘the girl you like just walked past arm in arm with your best friend’”); we see him overcoming a plethora of production challenges, from as simple as his well-weathered car crapping out, through to dealing with a lead actor abandoning the project mid-scene. Throughout this potentially stressful experience, our small-scale filmmaker remains remarkably calm and optimistic. It is easy to see how he wins over people not necessarily inclined to this sort of fuss, while successfully creating a film that engages a large portion of the local community. Despite this, I still found myself feeling nervous for him as he awaited his audience on the first night of three screenings.
The documentary style of the collaborative effort (the film shares directing credits between three people) is a mix of direct-to-camera interview and observational filming as Burmeister goes about his business of making films. Occasionally the filmmakers surprise with a poignant visual component that lifts the otherwise plain narrative style—for example, the bookend shots mirroring Burmeister arriving and leaving town via a lonely and dusty road at sunrise/sunset. These shots are not only coloured fabulously, but are held for a length that necessitates reflection while providing a visual metaphor of the loneliness of our subject’s chosen transient lifestyle—one engaged in numerous intense but temporally limited relationships, without much overarching connection to anywhere or anyone.
Highly energetic for his 50+ years, it is clear why Burmeister enjoys this unusual, itinerate existence. It is almost as if he needs the level of challenge, stress, and activity to keep himself feeling alive and vital. Though he’s long given away the practice of creating a new story idea for every new project—instead working with an evolving set of 5-6 scripts he’s penned—it is obvious that he derives great pleasure from a finished film and seeing communities coming together, both in the process of making the movies as well as the watching of them upon completion. As one interviewee notes: if it wasn’t for Burmeister and his film, he wouldn’t have much to do with half the people in the community brought together by the production.