Canadian filmmaker Jefferson Moneo didn’t set out to create a glossy travelogue of Tucson when he made “Tucson Hot Damn” last year.
He wanted to showcase the “artists, musicians, dancers, acrobats, iconoclasts, outlaws and a whole host of beautiful freaks on the margins” that define how he has come to know Tucson since his first visit about 15 years ago.
“I think there’s a real vibrant counterculture scene and what I find fascinating is that you have Raytheon there so you have this military industrial complex and then this vibrant cultural scene with artists and musicians, and then this desert environment,” he said from home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday. “You can really feel the influences of the Sonoran Desert both culturally, artistically and socially in a lot of ways. I think it’s this confluence of all these things that makes it really unique.”
On Sunday, April 30, he’s bringing those characters to life on a big screen and a big stage in “The Tucson Happening” at the Rialto Theater.
Moneo will screen his film and the musicians featured in it — Tucson storyteller/singer-songwriter Billy Sedlmayr; the Golden Boots Tropical Trio featuring Dimitri Manos, Ryen Eggleston and Jeff Grubic; and Flam Chen, Tucson’s internationally renowned aerialist, acrobatic and pyrotechnic troupe — will perform. Magic Kenny Bang Bang — aka Kenny Stewart — will serve as master of ceremonies.
The event closes out the 2017 Arizona International Film Festival.
Moneo’s 19-minute film explores Tucson’s artistic and hipster culture, with the ubiquitous desert landscapes set against some locales that never make it onto the magazine covers touting Tucson’s golf and resort set.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I had sort of an internal structure,” Moneo said. “What I really wanted to do was meet people.”
One person led to two others then three more.
“We went down this Tucson rabbit hole and met these artists and magicians and musicians,” said the 37-year-old filmmaker who discovered Tucson when his short film “Danceland” was screened at the Tucson festival in the early 2000s. “We would just meet people and they would say you gotta meet this person. We would follow that person and a lot of times we didn’t know where we would end up at the end of the day.”
The goal was to capture portraits of each in the spaces that defined them. The film opens with iconic desert rocker Howe Gelb in his backyard waxing poetic about his face and includes magician Stewart showing a friend how to use a fox trap. There are scenes of the barrio homes of Tucson musicians, a gritty storefront photo studio, a hole-in-the-wall taqueria where artisans form tortillas by hand, and the junky side yards where statuesque metal art is born.
Moneo shows us Tucsonans on the street, from the young boy sitting on a metal staircase to a father-and-son standing in front of an old pickup on North Fourth downtown. Everyday life is on full, raw, honest display, from the worker high atop the power lines to a musician playing a set at the Meet Rack. And all of it is set against the soundtrack of Tucson-centric songs by Sedlmayr, Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan and a young, multiracial mariachi.
Moneo described his film as a magical ride through “The Weird Capital of the World,” and after watching the 19-minute film, you might come to a similar conclusion. Or you might discover a Tucson you never knew existed.
“When I come down there, I don’t live in Tucson. I’m from somewhere else — another country — but I’ve had this satellite relationship for the past decade,” Moneo said. “Every time I come down there I meet a new artist, a new filmmaker. I just wanted to make a film that sort of represented the experience that I’ve had with Tucson.”