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Short Films in Focus: Belongings

Alex Coppola’s documentary “Belongings” is a documentary whose subjects believe in spirits, but it’s a very casual kind of belief. They’re there, maybe not all around us, but lurking in places that have meaning to us. They come out if we let them, acknowledge them, and speak to them. The storyteller in the film, Morgan Talty, has heard noises all his life in the house where he and his sister grew up. Their mother had a special word for these visitors, who sometimes had good intentions, sometimes bad. Talty has stories, most of them true, and has a funny way of joking around at the right moments. It’s good to have a sense of humor when you’re being haunted.

Talty has returned to his childhood home after his mother’s passing. His first tale is a strange one, indeed. One day, he and his mother came home and found something odd on their bed (no spoilers here). How did it get there when all the doors and windows were locked? What is the knocking sound that can often be heard? How are household items suddenly disappearing and reappearing? In the past, Talty’s mother seemed to always have the answer, steeped in their spiritual beliefs as members of the Penobscot Indian Nation. It is possible now that these “hauntings” are helping her communicate with her family from beyond the grave. The weird thing is the new homeowners have also been hearing unexplainable noises. 

“Belongings” will reach anyone who has had similar experiences of living in a home with its own set of strange sounds and occurrences. I seem to remember living in my parents’ house in Arlington Heights, IL, and hearing the sound of footsteps in the grass and leaves late at night while trying to sleep. Every night. I went downstairs a few times to check it out but saw and heard nothing. Only when I was upstairs did I hear it. Could it have been a spirit? Or just a sound that happened to sound like footsteps when heard at a certain height? I’ll never know. Talty and his sister seem convinced the noises in their childhood home come from some being that wants attention. Maybe their mother is now that being. 

Coppola’s film lets Talty do most of the talking, which makes sense. An accomplished writer, he has a presence and aloofness that centers the film and makes it easy to relate to and enjoy. The film stays rooted in the hallways and bedrooms of the house; it cuts away to photo albums and other meaningful objects while resisting the urge to go into a full animation style that has been the norm for short docs like these lately. 

I recently had the experience of going through my own parents’ house this year when it was up for sale and we had to clean it out. I never heard any noises or disturbances while I was there, but my mom cannot seem to explain how a couple of DVDs I loaned her suddenly disappeared. She’s not one to lose things like that. We gutted that house, and they never turned up. Other people live there now. I wonder if they’ll hear the noises I heard. If so, what will they believe they are? I was never quite sure what to believe, but “Belongings” has me thinking about them again, and maybe it’s time to take another look, not at the house, but at what those weird unexplainable noises make me think about and feel. 

Q&A with director Alex Coppola

How did this come about? (spoilers!)

Morgan and I were actually connected through mutual friends. They were organizing a fundraiser for a youth writing non-profit, which in the past, had been a live storytelling event. Because of Covid, though, they needed to shift gears a bit and asked if we could make a film for a virtual event, instead.

Morgan was getting ready to publish his debut novel at the time and had already considered turning one of the short stories from that book into a film. And those stories are amazing. The issue was that we really didn't have the time or resources to hire actors and a crew to produce a narrative. So I asked if he had any non-fiction that he was working on and he sent me this story about the unusual (maybe supernatural?) events in his childhood home. Including the mystery turd. And I loved it. The humor, tone—everything that makes Morgan's fiction so compelling was all there. And so that anecdote became the spine of this larger story about loss and his relationship with his mom.

You made a movie about someone else’s hauntings and how they relate to their spiritual beliefs. Have you had any similar experiences yourself?

I'm admittedly not a spiritual person. Or a big believer in the supernatural. But I do believe Morgan. Which I know sounds contradictory. And I don't really know how to reconcile those two ideas, myself. But I think the reason the story works at all, is because Morgan never asks us to. That is, it's not important whether we as viewers believe in spirits or an afterlife—when it comes to questioning what happens when we die, we're all essentially chasing ghosts.

A lot of short docs with a central storyteller go the way of animation, puppetry, or other stylized choice to help tell the story (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Was there ever any temptation to go that route with this?

I'm always tempted by the idea of incorporating animation into a new project, but again, just haven't had the wherewithal or time to do that. And those limitations are challenging, but they're also fun. I knew we weren't going to be able to stage any convincing reenactments of the events that Morgan describes, so we kind of went the other direction—intentionally drawing attention to the camera and the budget (or lack thereof) and treating the visuals a little more playfully. But would an animated treatment of the exorcism sequence have been fun? Absolutely.

I’m curious if Talty had more stories or insights that didn’t make the final cut. Were there any?

Morgan and I worked pretty carefully honing the narrative of the short so that the message and arc would really feel complete. And I think we were both pretty happy with it. The conversation with his sister (who is a true ghost enthusiast), on the other hand, was cut down considerably. That probably could have been a short of its own ...That said, Morgan has no shortage of stories. His debut book Night of the Living Res, which was released around the same time as the film, has since become a national bestseller and won a PEN American award.  His next novel comes out next year, and I'm sure that'll be amazing as well. 

What’s next for you?

As for me, I'm working on a project that's sort of a fictionalized history about a family and a town in transition. It's another pseudo-documentary about the mythologies we create around a place—and our place in it—and what any of those stories are really worth. And hot dogs. It's also about hot dogs. Now that I say that out loud, it sounds kind of insane ... hopefully it makes more sense on screen!

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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