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Inside the United Gates of America


Originally published 11:25 a.m., January 30, 2007
Updated 4:09 p.m., February 15, 2007

Charlie LeDuff Comes to Town to Talk About his Hilarious, Thought-Provoking Doc

I thought the fest guide said 7:15 p.m. on Monday night, so I nearly had to run over to Center Stage Theater to catch the 7 p.m. final showing of United Gates of America, New York Times journalist Charlie LeDuff‘s documentary about life behind the suburban gates in Canyon Lake, California. leduff%20gates.jpg As I approached the door, the film fest’s Mike “Tak” Takeuchi greeted me, and introduced me to LeDuff (pictured on the right), who was standing near the entrance as a nearly sold-out crowd waited inside.

As I shook his hand, I was caught entirely off-guard. I’d read much about LeDuff’s work in the past years, and his involvement — a print journalist going documentary-style — naturally intrigued me. But to run into the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist outside his screening was unexpected, even intimidating.

Have a cigarette with me,” LeDuff ordered, pulling out a Winston Light.

Okay, I will,” I answered, realizing this could be a good networking opportunity, or at least a good story somewhere down the line.

Why don’t they let us say what we all know is true? Why don’t they let us write what everyone else is talking about?” LeDuff asked me. “You know what I’m saying?”

Uh, yea, for the most part, I think so,” I replied, understanding that there are some boundaries with which we as journalists are obliged to, such as not reporting on unsubstantiated rumor and not divulging off-the-record comments (which are usually the most insightful).

I wasn’t, however, entriely sure what he was talking about. He seemed paranoid, agitated, and excited all at the same time. He talked about his two-year-old daughter, he talked about being tired of the Times, he talked about church-building in Michigan, and Jews feelings about Zionism — all over the course of a smoke. I began to wonder how this apparently crazy dude (whose wild hair and goatee, I must admit, began to remind me of myself) was such a prestigious journalist.

Then I noticed a very familiar smell coming off his lips. Is that whiskey?, I thought. Bourbon? Jack and coke? Whatever it was — and I’m pretty sure it was a brown liquor — Charlie LeDuff was drunk. And what better time to celebrate, I figured, than when you’re showing off your movie?

You wanna come for drinks with us after?” he asked me.

Sure,” I replied cautiously, weighing the possible connective benefits against the likelihood of grogginess and general dismay the following morning. I’m usually one to jump at all chances of interesting conversation and unbridled revelry, but as I get older and assume more responsibilities, I’m starting to worry about consequences. I guess I might be losing my edge.

With that, I went inside, grabbed one of the last seats in the upper leftside of Center Stage, and awaited the film. LeDuff and his producer Todd Schindler soon came out to introduce the film, propping up a chalice-type object and proceeding to each balance on it for a few seconds. LeDuff delivered a tangential, somewhat rambling introduction, causing many in the crowd to wonder about his sobriety level. “Is he drunk?” asked the oblivious woman behind me, oddly aghast that a journalist might take a swig now and then. Most of the crowd just chuckled along.

Then the lights dimmed and the screen lit up with the SBIFF trailer. “That’s not my movie!” shouted LeDuff, which got some laughs. And then came The United Gates of America.

The hour-long documentary, originally made for BBC (which explained LeDuff’s earlier comment to me that he “had to go to England to get this made”), was hilarious, probing, and meaningful. We watch as LeDuff enters Canyon Lake, California’s largest gated community, and begins to get the lay of the land. We meet a realtor, a stoner kid, a suburban slut, skinheads, rejected Mexican-Americans, political wannabes, and quite a few seemingly normal people.

LeDuff, mostly sober on film save for the house parties where everyone is drunk, examines whether living behind gates is really safe. Rapes doubled over the last year, he found out to the residents’ displeasure, and someone burned a house down after managing to somehow get through the gates. The stoner kid provides the most poignant commentary, as it’s his generation who have nothing to do within the walls other than get drunk (which seems to be okay based on teens drinking openly on the beach), get high, or think about escaping to the military (which the boy is too stupid for).

This is eye-opening stuff, and LeDuff, a Detroit-raised man clearly suspicious of the whole set-up, reponsibly does not draw any solid conclusions for the viewer. We are left wondering whether these Canyon Lake residents are paranoid or correct, whether life behind the walls is actually safer or more comfortable.

Following the screening, LeDuff and Schindler stood up to answer some questions. LeDuff, markedly more sober than before, still proved evasive, but generally was in tune with the whole notion of letting the viewer decide the reality. One astute watcher opined that it seemed the people of Canyon Lake were trying to recreate something — community and neighborhoods — that we’ve already lost. LeDuff agreed.

After the Q&A, I wondered if LeDuff would catch me to snag drinks. I still wasn’t sure if I’d go, because I figured it might be a fun time but probably not one that he’s really remember. But he was bombarded with people wanting to chat with him in person, so I was able to exit down the stairs and into the rainy night. Until we meet again, I guess, and let’s try to make sure it’s a Friday or Saturday, when the following morning’s woes don’t interfere with work.

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