The Peddler Review
“Meet the most prolific filmmaker you’ve never of…” runs the tagline for The Peddler (El Ambulante) and it’s a claim that’s hard to argue with. The man in question is Daniel Burmeister and his films have never seen international distribution, nor are they ever likely to. Even his IMDb entry (at time of writing) consists solely of his appearance in his documentary. Yet Burmeister is able to turn out a movie in just a month’s time and has been doing so as his principle source of income for some number years now. As soon as one receives its première he’s off to make the next, albeit in his own particular way. For what makes Burmeister so interesting - and, by extension, The Peddler so interesting - is the fact that he makes films as a kind of travelling salesman. Moving from village to village in his native Argentina, he turns to one of a number of readymade scripts and employs the residents as actors for this latest feature. Once production has been completed, after a period of roughly 30 days, he sells tickets for the screening and also offers copies for a price. The audience arrives, thoroughly enjoys the experience (a mixture of laughter and recognition) and applauds. Burmeister then heads off in search of the next village and next addition to his ever-growing filmography…
The Peddler follows Burmeister during the production of a complete feature. It opens with his battered old car entering Benjamin Gould, a small village in the Córdoba Province, and closes with him leaving on the very same road. In-between times we witness the kind of sights that are familiar from so many DVD ‘behind the scenes’ featurettes, yet also rendered anew thanks to Burmeister’s particular approach to filmmaking. Initially he must get the consent of the mayor to shoot in whichever village he finds himself and also make arrangements for his only two requirements: somewhere to stay and food to eat. Once permission and bed and board are in place he can move onto the audition process and finally switching on the camera. The former is a particularly charming affair in which he puts his prospective cast through a series of basic improvisatory exercises; the same for the children as they are for the adults. We see a quick montage of these wannabe actors put through their paces and then Burmeister’s decision - that everybody will appear in his film and that they should all applaud each other. It really is that simple for him, winning the respect and affection of the villages almost solely through his charm and good nature. Needless to say, the viewer’s reaction is much the same.
This good natured quality isn’t restricted to Burmeister, however, but rather extends to The Peddler as a whole. From the glimpses we get it would be fairly safe to describe Let’s Kill All the Uncles (the film which Burmeister is making) as a somewhat broad comedy with a few borrowings from the horror genre. It looks more than a little clichéd and, were it to be viewed as an entirely independent production from The Peddler, mostly awful. Yet the filmmakers behind the documentary - Lucas Marcheggiano, Eduardo de la Serna and Adriana Yurcovich - don’t view Burmeister and his work as a source of ridicule. The complete opposite, in fact. Put simply, this isn’t an Argentinean variation on American Movie, the 1999 film about aspiring horror director Mark Borchardt that made for compulsive car crash viewing. When we learn, for example, that Burmeister is a one-man crew shooting on an ageing camcorder and possessing a single lamp for use during night shoots the overall effect is charming. When we see him beset by the kind of problems that he is bound to encounter working in an unknown location and with a non-professional cast (at one point one of the actors has to leave midway through the filming of a key scene as he’s called away on urgent business) the response is one of empathy. That Burmeister is able to overcome these difficulties only adds to his appeal; he never worries, never gets irate, he just works as resourcefully as possible.
Furthering the appeal is the fact that Burmeister is tapping into some older traditions here, despite the use of video technology. Early on he informs one of Benjamin Gould’s civil servants that he was involved in puppet theatres prior to a move into filmmaking. More importantly, his methods also recall those of cinema’s earliest practitioners. Here in the UK, for example, we had James Kenyon and Sagar Mitchell setting up their camera around the country and then screening the footage to those it had captured the very same day. Of course these were short actuality pieces as opposed to feature-length fictions, but the idea remains the same. There is, no doubt, something intrinsically fascinating about seeing yourself, or your friends and acquaintances, writ large on the big screen. Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether Burmeister’s films are any good; it’s these more fundamental qualities which are of greater significance. Indeed, The Peddler’s handling of Let’s Kill All the Uncles’ première says it all: a simple collection of enraptured faces, both young and old, thoroughly enjoying the experience.
The simplicity of it all shouldn’t be underestimated and it’s consistently pleasing to see how low key The Peddler is. Shot digitally it opts simply to follow Burmeister as he sets about making his latest opus. There is no intervention or any attempt to overtly shape a narrative, but rather a desire to keep things brisk and a realisation that Burmeister’s charms will be more than enough to both power the documentary. Admittedly there is a strong visual angle given the Argentinean setting (one which wouldn’t been there if, say, this was a film about an equivalent director operating within an inner-city environment) but ultimately it’s the human side of things which proves most forceful and lasting. Burmeister is a fascinating character and there’s something wonderful about what he does and how it brings the community he enters together. I doubt that I’ll ever have a genuine urge to sample one of his works, but then he isn’t making these films for me. They’re little gifts for each of these communities, and here I’m referring as much (if not more so) to the process as I am the end result. That The Peddler allows an insight into this process is an equally wonderful thing. Long may Burmeister continue on his nomadic path.
Shot digitally and on a low-budget, we shouldn’t expect grand things from The Peddler on the presentation front. Indeed, that’s exactly what we get: a solid presentation framed at 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced with stereo soundtrack and burnt-in English subtitles. The print is blemish-free but bears the hallmarks of low-budget digital production whilst the soundtrack is crisp enough but again necessarily demonstrates the budgetary constrictions and vérité methods. Of course none of this makes the film unwatchable and under the circumstances is perfectly acceptable. Decent, but unremarkable.
To coincide with the UK release of The Peddler, Network Releasing conducted a nationwide short film contest to find the best examples in the Daniel Burmeister style, ie low-budget and community-minded. One of The Peddler’s co-directors, Eduardo de la Serna, acted as a judge and on the disc we find the winning entry, two runners-up and a two-minute intro from de la Serna. First place went to The Bedlamites, a fifteen-minute documentary short from Clayhouse Productions. It offers a brief insight into fell running with contributions from Camille Askins and multiple champion Ian Holmes. This is very much a visual affair, especially when it captures the bizarre ritual of night fell running in which the only light comes from the participants’ head torches. Of the runners-up, Kyle (directed by Amy Lisa Hill) is a cute, nicely observed little two-hander about a pair of teenaged school kids on their way home, whilst The Reward (a US-UK co-production directed by Lucy Patrick Ward) similarly goes for the fictional route. The reward in question relates to Mr. Puggles, the missing dog of New Yorker and aerobics instructor Felix. The pooch has an unfortunate encounter with the car of a young twentysomething, Charlotte, forcing a tense, darkly comic encounter between her and Mr. Puggles’ bereaved owner.
The three films are presented in their original aspect ratios (2.35:1, 1.78:1 and 1.85:1 respectively) with anamorphic enhancement and the expected presentation quality. The Reward looks best given that it was shot with the RED ONE digital camera. Optional English subtitles or those of any other language, for the hearing impaired or otherwise, are not available.