I still fondly remember when I took a train from Chicago to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois in the morning of April 20th, 2010. I was going there for attending the 2010 Ebertfest along with many others including late critic Roger Ebert, and I certainly had lots of expectation and anxiety as the train was approaching to my destination minute by minute, but I soon found myself soothed a bit as watching a series of rural landscapes consisting of fields, roads, towns, vehicles, and people.
While these passing landscapes which I saw from the window next to my seat all looked plain and ordinary, I observed them with curiosity and interest, and Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’ first feature documentary film “45365” somehow evokes that experience of mine at that time. Although its main background is a small town of Ohio, what is vividly shown in the documentary often took me back to what I watched and experienced during my visit to Urbana-Champaign, and I also came to admire how it carefully and thoughtfully builds up its big, exceptional tapestry of places and people.
The town in question is Sidney, Ohio, whose postal code is, yes, 45365. Consisting of the five chapters respectively corresponding to each digit of this postal code, the documentary freely looks here and there around the places and people of Sidney, and this can feel a little too random for us at times, but the Ross brothers, who handled the cinematography in addition to co-producing their documentary (Bill Ross IV also edited the documentary, by the way), slowly generates a subtle narrative flow with recurring elements and a linear passage of time. For example, we often observe a town officer during his duty hour handling a number of different cases in the town, and his several scenes gradually form one of the main narrative strands to support the documentary, while we get to know his daily work bit by bit.
Another recurring element is the constant radio broadcast in the town. At a small radio studio inside some local station, we often see a local radio show host frequently playing a number of old pop songs, which sometimes accompany occasional outdoor shots in the documentary. Because another high school American football season is coming, everyone is interested in how much their high school American football team will achieve in this year, and we later see two guys discussing about that at the radio station.
My favourite recurring element in the documentary is a local barbershop, which has three young barbers working there. As they busily work day by day, many different people come and go for haircut, and that reminds me of a similar scene in recent Pixar animation film “Soul” (2020). Once you sit at the corner of a barbershop for a while, you can listen to people talking about one thing after another, and that can be a pretty interesting experience to you.
Without providing any narration and comment for us at all, the documentary simply observes and occasionally listens to its human subjects, but the Ross brothers’ unobtrusive approach helps us get immersed in its small world, and I was often amazed by how their camera could capture very personal moments from some of their human subjects. For example, there are a couple of scenes where a mother and her son angrily argue with each other in their car for some trivial matters, and the Ross brothers’ camera just watches these two people from the backseat, but neither the mother nor her son seems to be aware of the presence of the camera behind them, though they must have been well aware of that they were constantly followed by the Ross brothers’ camera. I later came to learn that the Ross brothers shot their documentary in Sidney for 7 months in 2007, and I guess that was enough for them to make their human subjects less conscious of the presence of the camera closely shooting them.
Like any other town, Sidney and its people are quite excited when their town festival week begins, and the mood in the town becomes as joyous as possible. Although a certain outdoor music concert is ruined by the unexpected downpour from the sky, the performer brought to the concert tries as much as he can, and we are amused as watching a broom being used for pushing up the canvas roof for removing the rainwater on it. During the carnival season, kids are eager to try several different rides, and the documentary induces some curiosity from us as watching a certain weird spot for a while.
The documentary also does not hesitate at all to show the less pleasant sides of the town. Via that aforementioned police officer, we come to meet a number of problematic people, and I particularly remember an ex-con who emphasizes that he has been clean without any more trouble but then gets arrested by the police officer during his next scene. In case of the scene unfolded inside a local courtroom, we see a prisoner going through a certain legal procedure, and we get to know a bit about what he was arrested for.
Later in the documentary, the narrative flow eventually culminates to some important game for the high school American football team of Sidney. As expected, its coach delivers a routine motivation speech for his players in their locker room, and then we soon see these players confidently entering the field in front of their enthusiastic audiences.
Although it won Truer than Fiction award at the 2010 Independent Spirit Awards and then was shown at the 2011 Eberfest, “45365” has been unfortunately overlooked during last 10 years. Fortunately, the Ross brothers have made several acclaimed documentaries including “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” (2020) since their debut, and “45365” still remains as one of their notable achievements. At present, the documentary is available on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/214240589), and I really recommend you to give it a chance someday.