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Once Upon a Time in Knoxvile reviews


"A wonderful documentary on this bio man's mad paradise, brilliantly made and slightly terrifying." Jake Harders

"A very interesting film, provocative and sometimes startling." Jack Neely, Writer for Metropulse, Knoxville, TN

"a very amiable guide to an alternative lifestyle" David Gillam, Wales One World Film Festival

"It fascinates" Amelia Fry, Southern Appalachian Film Festival

Will Fraser’s documentary Once Upon a Time in Knoxville gives us a glimpse at the life of Rollo Sullivan, a modern-day guru of sorts, living on his own land and building his own community from the junk and other materials left behind by society. A practical philosopher, Rollo believes in the self-sufficiency of the land and the intelligent use and re-use of all materials, seeing today’s modern culture of consumption to be an exercise in wasted potential (and material).

To get the tech side out of the way, the film looks quite good and the few stylistic flourishes, such as title cards and other exposition appearing as if on crumbled, recycled paper, give it an appropriate aesthetic. Like the best docs, though, while the technical aspects add to the story, they don’t distract or call too much attention to themselves, instead letting the subject, Rollo, carry the day. Which he does, with great humor and intelligence.

Of course, when Rollo is telling tales of consuming peyote, weed and then interpreting the messages of howler monkeys in a matter of fact manner as if such topics are not that out of the ordinary, it does make you wonder if where he is coming from is all that lucid a place. Then again, does it really matter? He’s got his opinions on where the human raise is going, and how consumption is far out of proportion to creation and re-creation, but he’s not out getting in your face about it. Man decided how he wanted to live, and went out and did it.

Which means he builds houses out of recycled material and scavenges for whatever he can. He designs a more efficient outhouse system that allows you to easily move the entire building once you’ve, ahem, filled the hole to its top (ewww, but also a practical concern). He takes care of fainting goats. He lives to true to his beliefs, and doesn’t try to shove them down your throat.

Maybe he’s right, and we’ll all be living like him someday anyway, when the consumption collapses the system. Maybe he’s wrong. Regardless, it’s a fresh perspective and fun way to ponder the future of the human race. At least he knows how to handle a world besieged by economic calamity; build from the junk, create from the destruction. Makes sense to me.

Well, the self-sufficiency of the land and re-use of materials makes sense. The whole “understand the language of the howler monkey” is still a little iffy to my brain…

Film Threat, December 7th, 2011


I thought the film was an interesting character study of a man who has taken the obvious to its logical conclusions, and acted on them. Slow-talking and wearing a near-comical hat even by East Tennessee standards, he slowly unfolds to the viewer as having acted on cutting-edge social criticism long before many of us had read it, and assimilated it. Living in an attractive, community-minded (if not fashionable) area of Knoxville, he has built houses from abandoned but still usable materials in his own "Appalachian-?[please fill in--I forgot] style. He makes his living more from renting them than from the adjacent fam he tends. Starting with the simple observation that much of the hardwood chopped down in Tennesse winds up in wooden pallets, he makes good use of discarded pallets in his building. (This has also been done at Earthaven, a permaculture community in Black Mountain, North Carolina.) He takes us to nearby government-built housing, and proudly proclaims his own work to be at least as attractive, and much cheaper to build. His critique of the automobile-based socirty, of the despoiliation of downtown Knoxville by roads and parking lots, is worthy of James Kunstler at his best, although, like Kunstler, he drives a lot.

An interesting part of the film involves his matter-of-fact acquisition of, and marriage to, a Cambodian woman, on the recommendation of a neighbor: "You should get a Cambodian wife." (Unstated is a devastating evaluation of American women at the time of his marriage, and the probable chances of American marital contentment.)
It turns out that this guy "cleans up" pretty well when he wants to, and looks quite handsome in a well-fitting suit and tie (although his wife tells of how she had to coach him to cut and clean his nails). It turns out that his prospective bride and her siblings are college educated but without job prospects, and that she is a shrewd observer of her prospective husband and his prospects. Deciding, finally, that he is a good man, however unusual, she has made her peace with life in a new country. Also unstated is her matter-of-fact contentment, which may be missed by much of the audience; she wants children, and she wants them to be well-educated, but there is no consumerist "self-actualization" nonsense going on. In the real world of limited resources and population pressures, her bearing attests, to have a roof over your head in a wooded land, food to eat, a good spouse, and friendly neighbors (plus education, if you can swing it) is all one can decently ask for. Point taken.

My one quibble is that not much was said about their diet. The fact that they both move slowly, and without much flexibility, suggests that this is one area in which they are hurting themselves in the long run. I would suggest giving the protagonist a copy of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and film what he does with that knowledge.

Mark Homer
Transition Network, Knoxville, TN




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