Do you love Fresno? Do you love art? If yes, the... Enter Now
Steve Payne's film is the kind of thing we should be famous for, and probably are. It's one of those “only-in-Fresno” deals — a filmmaker from Los Angeles, by way of London (he's got the accent and everything), inspired by a story in the New York Times, packs a camera and a bag and finds a cheap motel on Blackstone Avenue. Then, he starts shooting a documentary about the city.
And the housing crisis.
And pool skaters.
The result, aptly titled “Fresno,” premieres 7 p.m. July 13 at the Tower Theater.
Because the link might not be obvious, let's spell it out: the city was hit by the housing crisis, hit hard, and left with a lot of foreclosed homes. This being the Central Valley, that left a lot of unused swimming pools, swarming with mosquitoes and sitting dirty-green, just waiting to be cleaned up and used by suburban skateboarders who are on the lookout for a good pool and found them by simply looking next door, or else with realty tracking sites and satellite images from Google Earth.
The story has gotten a lot of attention.
Since the New York Times ran an article on the phenomenon in December, the BBC and Al Jaazera English networks both sent camera crews to Fresno and the story has been the talk of local blogs more than a few times.
It's a trend story, because — and here's a little irony for you — where the housing market is concerned, Fresno is a trendsetter.
Payne calls it a canary in the coal mine, but whatever.
When the market was hot, Fresno was the sun. Housing was gaining equity at 26 percent a year, says Winston Kasparian, a real estate agent with London Properties, who was Payne's first interview and later became one of the film's producers. Kasparian could put a house on the market and get 10 to 15 offers the first day.
“It just got stupid,” Payne says. “It had to fail.”
That failure is what interested Payne. He'd been following the whole financial crisis closely, was intrigued by the Bernie Madoff scandal. He threw around the idea of going to New York City to film that, but came to Fresno instead.
With the help of Kasparian went to the source and got information and analysis from industry types, people from the Fresno Housing Authority and real estate agents like Don Scordino, who has served as the President of the Fresno Association of Realtors. He schooled himself in the world of foreclosures and abandoned pools, how a teaspoon full of diesel fuel will kill a pool's worth of mosquitoes and their eggs.
But a bunch of guys in suits sitting behind desk does not a film make. So, the film is interjected with fence jumping and skate scenes.
Scordino originally thought the whole pool-skater thing was a myth.
At first, Payne didn't believe himself. He went to skate shops, asked around. No one seemed to know anything.
“I get curious and start poking around in the Internet in the motel room that night. I find a DVD for sale about skateboarding in Fresno and buy it. This gives me an e-mail address. The very next morning, I meet Josh. Josh is the guy from the NYT article. Turns out it's not bogus at all and we have ourselves a film,” he writes, as way of explanation on the film's Web site.
This is a documentary on foreclosures, yes, and on skate culture, but the film is called Fresno and there is a sense of the city throughout, including interviews with Mayor Ashley Swearengin and ex-mayor Alan Autry. There are shots of Springtini, aerial footage of downtown, even a boat party up at Bass Lake.
If it all sounds like an odd mix, you've got to think of it like a Bloody Mary, Payne says. Take the ingredients on their own — V-8 and Worcestershire and gin (or is it vodka?) — and you wonder how anything good can come from it. But, put it together and it can be magical.
“Some mornings you'd crawl over your grandmother to get one.”