Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Outside, in the desert, in the day. At first it seems the houses are abandoned, pastel extrusions on sculpted lawns. This is Surprise, Arizona, or more specifically a 'masterplan community' in its locale. The town dates back to 1938, but this is a more modern impulse - a suburb of control. CCTV cameras, misters, polite notices from Residents' Associations, slow zooms into sterile rooms, crawling down empty streets. Over the wall, the big country, stretches of empty scrub. We meet some of the occupants, families, retirees. Director Tim Travers Hawkins stated at the Glasgow Film Festival that he wanted his film to stand for himself, and it does, after a fashion. Yet what audiences greeted with laughter is part of a wider social trend, a segregation of America according to political affiliation, the "white-flight" from city centre areas to the suburbs followed by further retreat, and a further retreat. A chain of garages held a 'longest commute' competition and the 'winner' drives 186 miles each way - Glasgow to York, Edinburgh to Chester.

That remoteness, the desire for isolation, stability and safety, whatever the cost, informs Surpriseville. It's missing from the film though - we are shown consequence, ably, well and entertainingly, but not cause. This is a body lying on the ground.

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These satellite suburbs are sometimes called subdivisions, and the accidental reference to set theory is apt. Demographics become tighter and tighter, stratification becomes ghettoisation. Visually compelling, the stark and sterile landscapes invite speculation. There's some excellent sound work, the low hum of air-conditioning is good, but the thwock-thwock-thwock of a ceiling fan over a US Air Force veteran's rec room is genius. 'This is the end', and it might as well be. His sadness at having neighbours he only encounters as the smell of barbeque over the dividing wall, the occasional bit of noise. Children in immaculate houses who might be allowed to play on empty streets, a dog barking, the hubris of a golf course bordered by cactuses.

Jamie Doe's music is minimally used, well deployed, but this is a film about its stark visuals. A muted palette, the pastel tones of the houses, gatehouses and walls, sand and emptiness and polo-shirts. The walls that surround the community appear as stacks of bricks, tiled to beautify them. Drainage culverts separate the suburb further, a moat, earthworks, a frontier fortification. Given how well judged Tim's film is in other respects it would be nice to see him look at other features of the wider trend - the ghost-town that is Detroit, the empty houses in foreclosed Nevada, the Green Zone in Iraq, the impulse to have a flag on the front lawn, others on the mantelpiece.

The best shorts leave one wanting more from the creator, not just more of the film, and Surpriseville doesn't quite manage it. It leaves a few too many questions unanswered, a few too many unasked, but it's still excellent. Ideally it will help those involved secure funding to do more in the same vein - a keen eye and a respect for the subject go a long way for a documentarian, and those are both well in evidence.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2011
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Surpriseville packshot
An exploration of the fears and anxieties that haunt a gated community in Arizona.
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Director: Tim Travers Hawkins

Year: 2010

Runtime: 10 minutes

Country: UK

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