Australian filmmaker Matt Bate freely admits to an obsessive streak. So it’s little surprise that when he first traveled to the U.S. from his hometown of Adelaide in 2006, it wasn’t the obvious sights of major cities like New York that attracted him. Instead, like a recurring motif, he kept noticing a particular form of urban detritus.
“I got obsessed because I saw sneakers on telephone wires all over the States. I spent the entire time photographing them for some reason,” Bate recalls. “From then, I had this vast archive of photographs and movies that I’d made of them.”
Tormented by the reason discarded sneakers festooned so many power lines, Bate took to the internet. There, of course, he uncovered endless forums and threads of discussion from the similarly obsessed – which of the urban myths about the hanging sneakers were true?
Clearly, Bate, who had previously documented obsessions in the feature-length Netflix hit Shut Up, Little Man, had to follow this mental thread.
But by the time he decided to turn it into a short film, he was already back home. And short documentary budgets being basically nonexistent, globetrotting again to film abandoned shoes was out of the question.
So for the final product, the 14-minute experiment The Mystery of Flying Kicks, Bate turned back to the internet, the source of so many hanging-sneakers conspiracy theories. He decided to crowd-source most of the content, opening up an international Skype hotline and inviting people to call in and record their own explanations for the phenomenon.
Bate then picked the most compelling, weaving them together into a long audio soundtrack and then filling in the visual pieces however possible. The 2010 result, which you can watch online via Vimeo since earlier this month, marries this sound collage with a video one, composed of a patchwork of animation, photos, and found and commissioned footage.
“That’s why the film looks the way it does. We’d get the audio and then we’d work out how to tell the story. ‘Do we animate it? Do we go on YouTube and try to find footage?’” Bate says. “I would also do a lot of research and find people that maybe lived in a particular neighborhood. Like we had a story about Harlem, and I thought, well how are we going to get to Harlem? “
“So I found this guy on YouTube who films gangs on the streets and just kind of films them waving their 45s at the camera,” he continues. “I wrote to him and asked if he could talk to locals on the street. And I paid him about $200 to just go out and walk around the streets of Harlem – somewhere I would never be able to go – and he went out there and did interviews.”
In the end, Bate managed to tell a global story without leaving his own personal corner of the globe. And he also managed to use the internet to create a story about the internet, the medium through which so much sneakers-on-wires lore has been transmitted. “I thought that was an interesting thing – to use the tool that’s spread the meme of the sneakers on the wire, to actually make the film,” he says.
That free using of collage and experimental techniques is a hallmark of Bate’s work. In Shut Up, Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, he tracks the global spread of a series of viral audio recordings, mixing both original footage with YouTube material and cut-and-paste sound.
And his next upcoming feature-length film, Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, is a sort of meta-documentary about a middle-aged Oregon man who’s been videotaping his daily life since childhood. “He’s almost the original Facebooker or original blogger, where this guy would do these daily status updates about how his life was going,” Bate says. “I’m trying to elevate this kind of seemingly everyday American guy, and I’m gonna make it into this sort of grand opera, I hope. “
That’s not due out until a projected festival season 2015, though, so in the meantime, you can watch The Mystery of Flying Kicks online at Vimeo. So does it give a definitive answer to the sneakers question? There are a few compelling explanations, some fanciful (supposed secret mafia codes) and some more commonplace (memorials to dead gangsters).
The thrust of the film is probably best summed up by an anonymous caller who appears on the soundtrack near the end. “You talk to 200 different people,” he says, “and you’re probably going to get 200 different answers.”