FOR INDEPENDENT FILMMAKERS, inspiration can be timed-release; success can be too. After Longview native S. R. Bindler exited a bar in his hometown one summer night in 1992, it took him three years to figure out what to do with the scene unfolding in the parking lot of a car dealership across the street. And it took two years after he finished shooting Hands on a Hardbody in that same lot for the documentary finally to receive recognition. This month Hardbody opens in Austin, having completed a successful run of ten film festivals over a period of fifteen months: It won the best feature-length documentary at the Santa Barbara film festival in March 1997 and the audience award at the Austin Film Festival last October, at the American Film Institute’s Los Angeles International Film Festival that same month, and at New York City’s Gen Art Festival this past May. How has a film shot on home video gotten the attention of an indie audience that has seen it all? “Reality is magic,” Bindler says simply, quoting Jean Renoir.
Hardbody—which was partially bankrolled by Longview-ex Matthew McConaughey’s j.k. livin productions—captures an endurance contest that used to be staged annually by a Longview Nissan dealer. As it begins, a new $15,000 Hardbody pickup is set under a canopy, and 24 people—whose names are drawn at random from a pool of hundreds—stand, not sit or lean, with their hands flat on the outside of the truck. Anyone who lifts his hand or wearily drops it is disqualified, though participants are granted a five-minute break at the top of the hour to eat, use the restroom, or get a massage from a significant other. The last person left wins the truck. (Over the years, several made it well past the hundred-hour mark, outlasting scorching heat and torrential rain.)
A graduate of New York University’s film school who had never before made a feature-length movie, the 28-year-old Bindler planned and executed a shoot that would make his subjects feel comfortable; using small video cameras rather than larger, more cumbersome 16mm film cameras, for instance, allowed him quick, easy access to the participants as their stamina began to give out. He edited more than ninety hours of footage into 97 minutes that portray as great a cast as any assembled by a Hollywood filmmaker, from a woman whose uncanny strength is revived each time a new gospel tape is played in her cassette player to the previous year’s winner, a mechanic who approaches the contest like an overconfident veteran (“If you can’t hunt with the big dogs, you got to get up on the porch with the puppies”). Pride and ego give way to deprivation and exhaustion until, at the end, it’s less about winning the truck than solidarity; disqualified competitors are shown cheering on their “family members,” and their counterparts from past years tell Bindler that the contest was one of the best things they’ve ever done. Jason A. White, a programmer for the Austin Film Festival, says that Hardbody is “totally thrilling. Any story in which you can get behind all the characters is amazing.”
Now based in Los Angeles, Bindler is contemplating what he’ll do next while busily coordinating Hardbody’s release in New York and Los Angeles. He’s eager, of course, to gauge each audience’s reaction. “The best compliment I get,” he says, “is when people say afterward, ‘Wow, I really feel tired. I really feel like I’ve been through it too.’”