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Q+A

Scott Kecken and Joy Lusco Kecken

Christopher Myers

By Charles Cohen | Posted 9/8/2004

We Are Arabbers premieres at the Inscape Theatre at Villa Julie College in Stevenson Sept. 9 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (443) 334-2163 or visit www.vjc.edu.

During the seven years it took them to make the documentary We Are Arabbers, filmmakers Scott Kecken and Joy Lusco Kecken have also worked together on a documentary on the Sowebo Arts Festival and put out in 1998 the narrative short Louisville, which was screened at 35 film festivals; Joy Lusco Kecken also wrote episodes for the upcoming season of the Baltimore-set HBO series The Wire. But their heart is very much locked up with the arabber project, which involved spending the better part of three years on the street shooting footage, editing it between other jobs, and raising their 7-month-old son, Tawabi. Determined not to allow the film to pass another year in limbo, Scott Kecken set up a premiere at Villa Julie College on Thursday, Sept. 9, months before it was anywhere near finished. A deadline can be a hell of a motivator, and this time, it seems as if itís going to work. (Charles Cohen)

CP: Whatís the movie about?

Scott Kecken: [In America] weíve gone from the mom and pop, sole proprietor and owner, to corporatization. I think that parallels the history of the arabbers and what theyíve gone through. They are the only itinerant peddlers left in America. Baltimoreís quirkiness kept them alive, and thatís sort of a statement in itself.

Joy Lusco Kecken: For me, itís a little different. How did people from my grandfatherís generation survive? [Through making the film] I see how hard-scrabble you have to be when circumstances donít allow you to just go to the office every day.

 

CP: Why do you think that arabbers have survived this long? Here we are with cars, grocery stores . . .

SK: But are there stores in Sandtown? Thatís the thingóthe neighborhoods that they serve still donít have those grocery stores.

 

CP: The arabbers will tell you that theyíre on the cusp of extinction, but if you read old newspapers, they were saying the same thing in the 1960s.

SK: Itís in the film. I have articles from 1939óďThe Street Hawker Loses his Voice.Ē 1969óďArabbers Expected to Disappear.Ē So they are always about to go. Now itís really serious, because there are only about seven guys working, and I think they recognize, too, that about 10 to 15 years [from now] they might not be around anymore. You really have one family, the only multigenerational family thatís doing it, and thatís the Savoy familyóMan Boy, his sons, and his grandchildren.

 

CP:Were you uneasy about using the term ďarabberĒ?

JLK: Yeah, after getting rejected by so many grant agencies.

SK: I wanted to call the film We Are Arabbers, and Joy was like, ďWe canít call them that. You canít put the name in the title.Ē Why not? Letís get it out there. In Baltimore it clicks, right? But you get the name outside Baltimore, and [people are] like, ďWhat is that?Ē Iím like, ďLetís make them see the title and think what the hell is it about.Ē

CP: What were some of the things you didnít know about arabbing when you started shooting?

JLK: When you are around good cops, they know the city like the back of their hand. They know every alley. The arabbers are the same way. I thought I knew a lot about the city. I clearly didnít know Baltimore as well I thought I did. I used to live in Bolton Hill, [and] I went through Sandtown and neighborhoods that were close by that I thought I knew, but when I went through those neighborhoods [with the arabbers], I realized Iíd never gotten out of my car

SK: Right, youíre not going go walk through a neighborhood like Sandtown unless you live there, and so when you do that you get the physical and spiritual feel of the place.

 

CP: Was it dangerous at times?

SK: Sure. I remember once we were in the back of a pickup truck and we were shooting. The pickup truck was in front of an arabber, and we were following him around. I think twice on that day people threatened us with violenceóďIf you point that camera this way again, weíre going to shoot you.Ē

 

CP: One of the biggest challenges must have been gaining the arabbersí trust. How did you do that?

SK: We just didnít show up with a camera. We worked at the stables. We hung out with themónot a whole lot, but enough to say, ďIím willing do something to show you Iím trustworthy.Ē

The first thing we did was 13 interviews, all in one day, and we did it in the stables. And I think they could tell we were trying to do something good, and we kept coming back. I think that meant a lot, more than anything else. We didnít show up one day and leave, which normally happens. We kept coming back.

 

CP: The Amish-arabber connection the film reveals is really interesting. You could build a movie around that.

SK: [The arabbers] buy and sell horses up there. They get their feed from up there. If the farrier isnít able to work on a horse here, they will take it up there.

 

CP: So whatís it like when they go up to Pennsylvania? Do the two groups have much in common?

JLK: The Amish have their own close-knit life and code of rules, and itís the same with these guys. And when* they interact . . . we have this great shot looking down at [a horse] auction with the Mennonite-dressed men, and thereís our guys, smoking cigars, joking, wearing their Kangols. It was wild. It said a lot, just that picture.

 

CP: What about the animal-rights issues that people often bring up in regard to arabbers?

SK: Basically, the conclusion I came to is, yeah, itís not the ideal situation for a horse, but they seemed to be in pretty good condition and they are treated well. And we never saw any incidents of abuse.

 

CP: It must be interesting to have a documentary coming out in what is being considered a golden age of documentaries. Have you thought about that?

SK: I think itís a great time to be a documentary filmmaker, thatís for sure. (smiles) I think thatís the reason it took us so long. We needed that synchronicity so that we come out with a documentary when itís the best time to have a documentary come out.

JLK: Itís frightening. There was a time when people would sit back and watch characters and get to know people they have never met before. They were totally willing to spend two hours doing that. Now it seems like youíve got to have a stance. We donít approach it that way.

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