East Chicago, Indiana.
“To an outsider, it’s the sort of place you drive past but never into.”
That’s how filmmaker Dan Rybicky in voiceover describes the hometown of Peter Anton, the outsider artist and subject of Rybicky and fellow director/producer Aaron Wickenden’s emotionally charged documentary “Almost There.” It also describes the seemingly homeless Anton (appearances can be so deceiving), someone you’d barely pay attention to if you passed him on the street (and pass him by, you would).
For Rybicky and Wickenden, their initial and chance encounter with Anton occurs in 2005, at the annual Pierogi Festival in Whiting, Indiana, where the elderly and disheveled self-taught artist has set up his ramshackle table and easel, barking at passersby to have their portraits sketched. The filmmakers, from Chicago’s Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams”), take the time to speak with Anton, photographing him and admiring his fascinating artwork, listening to his story, never realizing what is yet to come. The following year, a letter arrives from Anton, asking them to make a film of his life story. He’s got volumes of his autobiography (nearly 700 pages and counting), painstakingly hand-lettered and illustrated and catalogued for them to reference. They soon arrive at his decrepit home, where they find the artist living in a filthy, mold-infested, damp, wet-floored basement, nearly buried amid decades of books, papers, garbage and most importantly his art. The surroundings are so vile, the filmmakers are forced to leave and return for the duration of the project with protective masks to shield them from the stench.
Narrated by the 83-year-old Anton, the documentary takes on even more emotional punch as you hear the joy, the sadness, the pain, the anticipation in his time-weary voice; no “talking head” could have done his story justice. Those emotions are reflected in the world around him as he sees it, and as it really is. And occasionally the worlds collide, for better or worse. The newfound spotlight that shines brightly on Anton brings with it celebrity in the form of an exhibit at Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. It also brings to light an egregious episode from his past that I will not divulge here, as it must be experienced as the story progresses.
“Almost There” spans eight years in Anton’s life and the lives of his filmmakers, especially that of Rybicky, who learns he has more in common with this octogenarian than he could have imagined. We learn of Anton’s early years, of his overbearing mother who forced him to drop out of art school in Chicago when she found his nude studies. We learn of his career as a local talent show producer (everything from roller skating shows to jugglers to dancers and singers were part of his Talent Club roster), boasting more than 2,000 clients at one time, he reveals. We meet some of his former students/clients, and several community members who have, over the years, helped him survive with trips to the grocery store and such. The filmmakers soon find themselves also offering the basic necessities, until their lives become just too intertwined.
The documentary homes in on the ideas of community, about caregiving and giving care, about human nature and humanity, about parenting and becoming parents to the people we once called mom and dad. It is about surviving and survival — or to quote lyrics from an old standard, it’s about dusting yourself off and starting all over again. Because, as we learn from the song — and Peter Anton — nothing is impossible.
NOTE: Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden will be in Chicago for a series of panel discussions at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Dec. 11-17. Check the website for details and dates.
Kartemquin Films presents a documentary written and directed by Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden. Running time: 85 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.