'Twittamentary' Uses Twitter to Tell American Stories
Homeless twitterer Anne Marie Walsh uses the network to provide a glimpse into her world, she explains in new documentary "Twittamentary."
NEW YORK — "I heard Twitter was a stupid place [where] people just talk about what they wanted to have for lunch. And I said, 'Well, that's where I belong, because I like lunch, too.'"
That snippet from Darren Williger (known on Twitter as @williger), who identifies himself as a "sales professional," comes early in the new movie, "Twittamentary." The documentary debuted last night (June 19) in New York City at the 140 characters conference, a gathering that focuses on the human stories behind the social network.
The movie is a road-trip documentary, from New York City to Los Angeles, that uses the Twitter to trace the stories of Americans across the country — from a stock trader to a homeless woman, from an improv comedian to a hooker.
Siok Siok, a Singaporean TV producer, came to the U.S. to tell the stories of people who caught her attention on Twitter. "There's very little shots of the computer," said Siok (@sioksiok) after the screening. In fact, one can understand the film even if they have never tweeted, since the focus is on the people who meet on Twitter, not on how they use the technology. [Twitter 'Stories' Site Shows the Impact of a Single Tweet]
"Can Twitter get anybody out of homelessness? …Can twitter feed a cow? Can Twitter do anything? No. But people can," said Mark Horvath (@hardlynormal), a homeless advocate in LA — and former homeless person himself — who is interviewed in the movie.
Siok and her traveling companion, artist Geo Geller (@geogeller), introduce nearly three dozen people. Some are obvious choices, such as Janis Krums (@jkrums), the first person to tweet a photo of the "Miracle on the Hudson" emergency landing of a passenger plane on the Hudson River in 2009.
But the less-dramatic cases really stand out. The star is perhaps Anne Marie Walsh (@padschicago), a long-term homeless woman from Chicago who tweets from computers at the public library. She's gained 5,655 followers, some of whom mail her necessities such as clean sheets to use at shelters. After the filmmakers stop in Chicago, Walsh boards a Greyhound bus with them for the rest of the trek to a 140 characters conference in LA, where she ends up being the star speaker.
Another engaging character is Ramon De Leon (@Ramon_DeLeon), owner of several Dominos Pizza franchises in Chicago. De Leon created an awkward but endearing video apology to a customer, Amy Korin, who tweeted a complaint about getting the wrong pizza delivered. "I apologize that it took me an hour to see your first tweet," De Leon says in his YouTube video. "But Amy let me tell you, I got your back…We are going to remake the entire order, and we are going to wow you."
The film also features interviews over Skype with Mika Tan (@Mika_Tan), a Nevada prostitute and porn actress. "I love the Skype point of view. It has an intimacy that's very hard to achieve when you film something," Siok said.
Like De Leon, Mika Tan also has a keen business sense on the network. She even offers her Twitter followers discounts at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada (also the setting of the HBO reality TV show "Cathouse"). But Tan worries about minors who follow her and is constantly blocking people who appear to be too young. [Twitter and Facebook Grapple with Age Limits]
Siok calls the movie "crowdsourced" since it weaves together the HD video she shot with YouTube and Skype videos and with digital photos. That makes for some uneven video quality. And even the segments that the filmmakers shot are awfully rough. The camera shakes, many scenes are out of focus, and many are overexposed. One unintended upshot, however, is that the transition from the technically high-def to the Skype and YouTube video is less jarring as a result.
Crowdsourcing goes beyond making the film. During the premier, a second screen projected a "Twitter wall" of what people were tweeting as it played. "This is probably the first time in your life that someone encourages you to keep your phone on in a movie," Siok said.
Twitter handles of the characters in the film flash onscreen. The audience often tweeted about the characters, some of whom responded during the screening. "Honored to be getting Awesome #Twittamentary feedback from #140Conf12 abt my Videoapology on a #Custserv chat night," tweeted Ramon De Leon, the Dominos franchise owner, who has since become something of a social media guru. [Tips on Mastering the New Twitter]
Siok used Twitter not only to make the film, but to edit it. She shot most of the documentary in 2009 and has shown it in 15 "beta screenings" over the past year, each time reading audience tweets and re-cutting the film to address their critiques.
"This is the final cut," she announced last night. Unlike Twitter, the movie is not free. It's available for $4 on the Twittamentary website, with the proceeds going to charities such as Horvath's homeless advocacy group, invisible People.