Documentaries featuring the filmmaker as subject to some strange social experiment have always interested me. Although the possible scope of their project is limited to individual results, if properly presented, the film can often translate into something greater about society as a whole. This was the promise that drew me to Craigslist Joe, a film about one man surviving a month using only Craigslist. Sadly, despite this films potential, it was an ultimately pointless and passionless venture.
Craigslist Joe starts with a simple premise. One man, Joe Garner, leaves everything and everyone he knows, and attempts to go cross-country over 31 days, strictly using Craigslist as a means to find transport, food, shelter and entertainment. He is to use no money and can not call people that he knows, forcing him to live off the generosity of strangers. He leaves his home, hoping to answer the question that he posits at the beginning of the film: in the era of social media, have we lost our sense of community? Although this is undoubtedly a very North American question, it’s still an interesting concept to explore.
As I watched Craigslist Joe, I never really got an accurate feeling for how time was passing. The film does not have much of a running narrative, and it was often confusing about how much time had passed in each location. Even more important than this, however, is the glaring absence of danger. He rarely goes hungry, and we only see him without a place to stay for 1 and a half nights. There are no real stakes in this adventure, and whether that has to do with storytelling, or actual circumstance is hard to tell.
The films main flaw lies in our host, who is so dull and uninsightful, that many of the potentially powerful and fascinating scenes are left dead in the water. Other films in this sub-genre, such as Super Size Me, thrived because Morgan Spurlock was an interesting person who had a lot to say. He made his audience feel as if they were a part of his journey. Garner fails at this crucial element and often leaves his audience hanging, refusing to provide narration or onscreen reactions to any of the varied situations he comes across. What should be a fascinating journey into the lives of strangers, simply becomes a collection of footage similar to home videos forced on unsuspecting and unwilling friends at parties.
Garner’s inability to hold an engaging conversation on camera also leads to several awkward scenes, the first being when he is invited into the house of an Iraqi-American family who arrived in the US as refugees several years before. They discuss their issues with racism in post-911 America, and Garner is literally left speechless, and additionally, fails to provide any backing narrative as to his thoughts regarding their stories. This could have been an excellent opportunity, not only to discuss his emotions about their described experiences, but also to examine his own privilege, particularly how being a how being a young, Caucasian male is a major factor in the experiences he has on his Craigslist quest.
Garner does strike gold when he hits New Orleans, and meets, John, an artist who is attempting to save flooded buildings destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The artist uses art installations to breathe life back into abandoned neighbourhoods. John also takes Garner to the headquarters of the Fundred Dollar Bill art project, which is attempting to raise awareness, and gain government aid to clean up New Orleans properties that are contaminated with lead. Sadly, Joe fails us again, providing little more than background info, and no insight other than shots of himself staring off into the distance and shedding a few tears. While the journey certainly may have been eye opening to him, his audience is dealt the short end of the stick, having been made to watch countless shallow interactions with no additional depth of meaning provided by our inept tour guide.