On Maker: The Film, and The Culture

Natalee Blagden

Matt Smith

The first in the Art, Design & Architecture documentary film series at Princess Cinemas, which runs every Monday until October 26, Maker is a well-produced series of spotlights on DIY projects ranging from the light-hearted to life-changing.

With candid interviews serving as a backbone for the film, Maker leads viewers on a meandering tour through labs, garages, backyards, and maker fairs to see the splendor of DIY satellites, underwater exploration robots, Indiegogo, the Pebble watch, BioCurious, “Silicon Valley’s hackerspace for biotech,” fashion, and leading-edge environmentally alternatives to well-known manufacturing processes.

American maker culture is portrayed as having evolved from man-cave “tinkering” as a solo activity (think: 1950s), to today’s social and collaborative “lab” environments and classrooms. Some interviewees are nostalgic for hands-on work with solder, or the familiar smell of sawdust. Others are forward-looking, speculating about how we’ve drifted too far into consumerism. Those leading the charge urge others to learn to “hack the physical world!” and while we’re at it, perhaps boost flagging economies. Maker’s interviewees describe the movement as virtually limitless: “it’s about how you solve problems,” and it’s also “more art for more people.” Threads of practical and expressive modes of creativity are fully melded under the “maker” banner.

At times, viewing this film is a bit like opening up a scattershot family photo album jammed full with scads of cousins, nieces and nephews; it may not always clear how all these snapshots are related, but getting to know each one is an enjoyable moment in itself.

The enthusiasm in the movement is never more apparent than in the segment about “Super-Awesome Sylvia”. The Youtube phenom started creating episodes in pigtails, at age 7. By her pre-teen years, Sylvia was invited to do an interview with Katie Couric for “making science cool again.” Today, clad in lab coat and Converse sneakers, her  inquisitive, no-nonsense approach lets gender fade to the background. The raw ebullience in her voice is first thing you notice about Sylvia.

Another unforgettable vignette presents the Eye Writer. The low-cost apparatus tracks eye movement and enables renowned graffiti artist, activist and publisher Tony “TEMPT1” Quan to communicate and continue creating art despite being “locked-in”. That is, Quan is completely immobile but still has an active mind, because of ALS (Lou Gherig’s Disease). Inventions like these lend added legitimacy, depth, and a sort of supernatural, transformative, futuristic promise to the maker movement.

A few politically tone-deaf comments in the film made this reviewer shift a little uneasily in her seat. For example, its glib, tone-deaf treatment of the problematic aspects of international supply chains and manufacturing in Asia. The film also presented the British leisure class as forefathers of the maker movement without discussing the socioeconomic context, recognizing the privilege of this group, or the widespread negative impacts of industrialization in the United Kingdom. These were, however, brief lapses in a strong, feel-good film.

Johnson says he views these films as “inspirational”, not “documentary exposé.”

“I think Maker was made to get people excited about the movement, and to get out and get making. It would have been nice to get more of the greater impact, but in the end I think it helped expose what is going on and how people can get into it,” Johnson adds.

“I hope people left Maker wanting to go out and make,” say Johnson. “I hope people leave Seth’s Dominion wanting to go out and tell stories through pictures. We’ve shown all kinds of movies about different things, and I hope they all put people in awe of their subjects, but I also hope they made them think “Hey, I can go do something like that too!”