With the gentle, lyrical “Where Are We” (at the Sunset 5) San Francisco filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who won an Oscar for their documentary “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” took off on an 18-day trip through the South (plus parts of the Southwest) and questioned people about their lives. The result is a warm and often revealing account of contemporary America--counterpointed with the shimmering strains of the “Aquarium” section of Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” Throughout, the filmmakers zeroed in on ordinary or poor people; a sprinkling of the views of intellectuals or the rich and powerful might have added some variety.
Wisely, Epstein and Friedman are as friendly and polite as those they interview, which means that their subjects really open up to them, and they leave any judging up to us. We know where we are only when someone happens to mention locale--or when we recognize the place ourselves; some discreet labeling would keep us from wondering most of the time.
By far the most intriguing sequence is set in an off-limits gay nightclub catering to a nearby Marine base. As gays themselves, Epstein and Friedman are able to elicit candid remarks from several young macho Marines about the oppressiveness of their lives as gays in the military. They also talk to the club’s middle-aged female impersonator, who speaks proudly of all the money he’s raised for the fight against AIDS. When the next morning the filmmakers see the same group of Marines on the beach, a couple of them, previously shot with their faces in shadow, decide to come out for the cameras.
Epstein and Friedman also make a compassionate visit to an AIDS hospice in New Orleans, and when, at the beginning of the film they ask two teen-agers what impression they have of San Francisco, one of them casually replies that it has a “faggot image,” not realizing the sexual orientation of the filmmakers.
“Where Are We” is by no means concerned only with gay attitudes and issues. The filmmakers have an entirely pleasant visit to a prosperous-looking Mississippi restaurant with a friendly, likable proprietor who, as it turns out, pays her black cook only $3.85 an hour--after 18 years of service. Epstein and Friedman don’t go in for bizarre Diane Arbus-like subjects, but how could they not resist talking to a nice middle-aged couple, a woman whose husband has supported his wife’s love of Elvis by constructing Graceland in miniature in their yard. And when they stop over in Vegas on the way home they first talk to the homeless before interviewing Strip casino operator Bob Stupak, who, with a keen sense of playing the odds, tells them he believes we’re 88% responsible for our fates.
The filmmakers end by appraising the surprisingly upbeat note the majority of their interviewees expressed. Epstein remarks, “I’m struck by how content they were with their lives"--to which Friedman replies that it may just be that they are “resigned to their fates.” Surely, the truth for most of the engaging people of “Where Are We” (Times-rated Family) lies somewhere in between the two observations.
‘Where Are We’
A Roxie release of a Telling Pictures production. Writers-producers-directors Jeffrey Friedman, Robert Epstein. Cinematographer Jean de Segonzac. Editor Ned Bastile. Music “Aquarium” section of Charles Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” Sound Mark Roy. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Times-rated Family (suitable for all ages).