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Week of 5 November 1999

Vol. III, No. 13

Feature Article

film poster

A real sleeper

Filmmaking alum takes unblinking look at his Lazy White Friends

By Eric McHenry

Dean Ishida (COM'93) spent more than two years shooting, writing, and painstakingly editing a documentary about how lazy he and his friends are.

It sounds a bit mendacious, but the finished product is convincing. Winner of Best Documentary honors at a slew of independent film festivals, My Lazy White Friends (Farouche Films, 1998) is the story of seven talented young men who graduated from BU in 1993 and promptly went nowhere.

The film opens with Eric Bronson (CAS'93), a graduate student in philosophy at SUNY-Buffalo, sitting at a picnic table in a public park and deriding the rat race. "I don't want to do some sort of nine-to-five job that's just a little game I can play," he says. "You know, my life's too short for that."

"What time did you get up today?" Ishida asks him from the other side of the camera.

Bronson thinks for a moment. "Uh, two?" he says, tentatively. "I think I woke up at one, but it took me a little while to get out of bed."

The film is studded with such tragicomic moments, in which, with a pointed question or a judicious edit, Ishida exposes the Ozymandian rubble of his friends' once-grand ambitions.

Ted Butler (COM'93) went to New York City after graduation, hoping to "make movies." But he made little headway and eventually retreated to Hoboken, New Jersey, where Ishida finds him working in a bar. "It was a learning experience," Butler declares of his time in New York.

Again, Ishida's voice: "What did you learn?"

There's a pause of about 10 seconds, then a cutaway. Butler has no answer.

For all the bleakness of its vision, My Lazy White Friends is remarkably even-handed. Ishida, who provides occasional narration, doesn't hesitate to turn the camera on himself, however unflattering the results may be. "Like my friends," he says, "my recent days have consisted of sleeping and Nintendo." Nor is the film ever aggressively condescending toward its subjects. Beginning with over 40 hours of raw footage, Ishida and coproducer Bronson were able to create detailed portraits that transcend mere caricature.

Dean Ishida and friends

Filmmaker Dean Ishida (COM'93) (right) with a group of his lazy white friends in Allston, 1991. In the flannel shirt (left) is Eric Bronson (CAS'93), who coproduced Ishida's award-winning documentary.

This wasn't easily accomplished, Ishida says. With a budget of less than $3,000, he was unable to afford sophisticated editing equipment. He shot most of his footage with an Hi8 camcorder and pieced the movie together on a rented S-VHS system -- literally recording from one videocassette to another. The final cut, which contains over 700 picture and sound edits, is a synthesis of 10 radically different rough drafts.

"For the longest time, Bronson and I were going through periods of self-loathing -- 'Oh, this movie sucks. What are we doing?'" Ishida recalls. "But we knew we had a story to tell. It was a matter of getting feedback from our friends and very slowly making it better."

Along with its comedy and implicit cultural critique, the film is full of real drama. Matthew Tanzer (CAS'93), for example, is introduced as a fun-loving and rather feckless character. He has a vague desire for wealth but no specific prospects or plan. He makes an appearance shortly after graduation on the television game show Wheel of Fortune and loses badly.

But the portrait deepens as it develops. Ishida includes an interview in which Tanzer talks, at first with some reticence, about his lifelong difficulty fitting in -- something common to all seven of the film's subjects. Tanzer, however, suggests that his ostracism has been more absolute in some respects, and the segment culminates with his acknowledging his homosexuality to Ishida for the first time.

Initially, Ishida admits, he didn't think the interview belonged in the film.

"I called Bronson the next day," says Ishida, "and he was so excited that Tanzer had actually said it on camera. And I said, 'Look, this has nothing to do with the movie. The movie is about being lazy.'

"In the end," he says, "we decided it was such a strong moment that we should try to work it in somehow."

In fact, the footage fits seamlessly into the documentary, which is deeply concerned with alienation and diminishing self-esteem.

Ishida has screened My Lazy White Friends at 14 independent film festivals and brought home the Best Documentary laurel four times -- from the Atlantic City Film Festival, the Newport Beach International Film Festival, the Saguaro Film Festival, and the Hermosa Beach Film Festival, where he shared the honor with Oliver Stone. His current project is another documentary, Queue, in which he trains his lens on "people waiting in long lines." He's already shot about 10 hours of footage.

"We shot some of the Star Wars lines in Hollywood, and the Oscars," he says. "People will camp out for a couple of days just to get into the bleachers to see the stars come in."

Although documentary is not his favorite genre, he says, it's attractive right now for a number of reasons: in Queue, he believes he's found an interesting subject; My Lazy White Friends has given him some success, some satisfaction, and a feel for the documentary filmmaking process; and it appeals to the procrastinator in him, because the hard work of writing can always be put off for another day.

"You shoot it first, then write it during the editing stage," he says. "It's a backwards way of making movies. But it's also easier, in that sense, because I'm lazy. It's good for the lazy writer."