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Short Films in Focus: "One Year Lease"

Anyone who has had an annoying roommate, loud neighbors or an incredibly nosy landlord will appreciate Brian Bolster’s documentary “One Year Lease,” a painfully funny film that beautifully observes without reacting. The nosy landlord, in this case, is Rita, who leaves voicemail after voicemail about mundane things to her tenants. They must have given her the time of day one time too man, and now have a friend for life who just won’t leave. She is not a bad person. She just cares a little too much, particularly about her tenants’ cat, the pigeons on the sidewalk and where to get a good, used refrigerator. Rita manages to sidestep the important stuff landlords should manage, like leaks in the building that go on for days without repair. Her messages go on forever and we can only imagine the shudder Brian and his partner Tom must have felt every time they received another new voicemail from Rita.

“One Year Lease” is made up mostly of Rita’s voicemail messages while we observe static shots of the apartment, Snowball the cat and, inevitably, Tom and Brian packing up. The messages start out with Rita offering to take care of their cat while they’re away. Eventually, she gets a little more obsessive, accusing them of hiding and not answering their door to her. Only once does Bolster give the viewer a glimpse of Rita as a physical presence, as he has a conversation with her about a repair and secretly records it with his phone at his side. 

“One Year Lease” brings to mind documentaries like “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure” and “Winnebago Man"—films that reveal real-life, eccentric characters we think only exist in the movies. And yet, most of us have had a Rita in our lives at one point, which is what makes “One Year Lease” so funny and, in a way, hard to watch. It is a film where one laughs in recognition while feeling sorry for everyone involved, even Rita? How does that song go? “All the lonely people / Where do they all come from?” 

Bolster's spoke with about the film and its subjects. "One Year Lease" won Best Documentary Short at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. 

At what point did you start saving Rita’s voicemail messages for a film project?

I actually never imagined making a documentary film out of our landlord’s voicemail messages, and the messages were actually not saved intentionally, at least initially. Our keeping them on our phones was mostly out of laziness or to play for friends and family for laughs; however, toward the final few months of our lease, we realized that between the both of us, we had amassed well over 100 voicemail messages from Rita.

Was there a Rita story or situation that didn’t make the final cut?

Oh man, "One Year Lease" really does only scratch the surface, there are too many to count! Rita’s weekly inventory of our garbage, her odd relationship with her attorney (who’s message is actually the last one in the film), our not having any heat for the winter—all were good candidates. One particularly long message (it was Tom’s favorite) didn’t make the final cut. It was a rambling, tad more manic message where Rita provided detailed instructions about keeping an eye out for a “Japanese guy with a bike” (a co-tenant she had recently evicted). One story which wasn’t captured via phone messages and therefore didn’t make the cut had to do with her aggressively accusing us of leaving a beer can in the hallway. After going back-and-forth with her for like 30 minutes about both the triviality of it AND the fact that neither of us was responsible (followed by an hour of post-argument internet research regarding how to break a lease—FYI, in NYC it’s not easy), she eventually came back down to our apartment to apologize. Apparently she had forgotten that SHE picked the can up outside the building earlier in the day and forgot to throw it away.

Looking back, what is your overall impression of her or that whole situation?

This is a great question, since you don’t really hear our side of the story in the film. Some people who have viewed the film have a lot of sympathy for Rita, and we did too … at the beginning of our lease term. In fact, at first, we engaged her regularly in the hall, invited her into our apartment to see Casper, answered her calls, etc. We always knew she was more than a tad eccentric, but that’s not at all uncommon in New York City; I just don’t think that either of us had a sense for the severity of her "charm." In retrospect, a one year lease that translates into a lifetime of stories, good and bad, is a rarity, and I’d be lying if I said we had too many regrets regarding our "sentence."

What was the filming and editing process like? Did you film over the course of a year?

I didn’t start filming until a month or so prior to our moving out of the apartment. I had made three other short documentaries, so I knew that this unsolicited content was something special, and could be woven together to tell our story.

In terms of editing, it was probably the fastest turnaround of all my short documentaries. The hardest part was trying to convey the volume of messages she left to the audience. It was Tom’s idea to add the crescendo of messages toward the end of the film when we are placing Casper in his carrier, and I think this helped to drive that message home to viewers.

Is your new living situation any better?

Yes! The apartment you see at the end of the film was post-Rita’s place, and we loved that space and the building.  It was only a few blocks from Rita’s, so we would see her in the neighborhood from time to time though. We lived in that new apartment for four years, prior to moving to Los Angeles a couple months ago. Our living situation out west has been good so far as well. No meddling, invasive landlords, lots more space and sunshine; however, we both do miss NYC more than I thought we would.

What’s next for you?

I have a new short documentary on the film festival circuit, "The Tricks List," which premiered at Outfest in LA last summer and recently screened at Slamdance in January. Additionally, I am currently editing my latest project, a short documentary profiling a winter caretaker at a hotel that closes for the winter. I finished shooting in February just before moving out to LA, and I hope to have a cut finished by the end of May or early June.

One Year Lease from Aeon Video on Vimeo.

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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