Directed by Mickey Todiwala & Monika Delgado
There is a wisdom gleaned from living off the grid, a kind of Walden-esque understanding that only those brave enough to embrace true solitude will ever come to know. The Mayor of Ballarat tells the real life story of one such recluse, Rock Novak, a man who lives alone in a ghost town in the middle of Death Valley. As self proclaimed caretaker, mayor, sheriff, judge and undertaker, Novak presides over his fiefdom-of-one with an idiosyncratic grace that’s as present in the bits of wisdom he shares as it is in the lines of his desert-aged skin.
The fact that Rock Novak is real--that this is indeed a documentary and he is not a work of fiction--should come as no surprise given the storied history of wisecracking, oddball loners in American folklore. What is surprising is how apt a counterweight Novak is to the rampantly divisive socio-political climate of our time. Here in the middle of the desert lives a straight talker who is also thoughtful, a tough old cowboy who also knows how to feel.
“You know, we’re a long ways from being civilized,” Novak proclaims at the beginning of the film. “We ain’t no different from how man was five thousand years ago, except we have technology that he didn’t.” This simple truth, levied with a frank naivety, allows its resonance to exceed the implication of sheer words alone. Novak knows, in his own special way, the ins and outs of the human condition and the tragic shortcomings of our tech-addled times.
Filmmakers Mickey Todiwala and Monika Delgado cleverly frame Novak so as to amplify the entropic beauty of his surroundings, while also allowing him the space to speak openly, often times joking to them (and us) with a cutting self-awareness rarely seen in documentary subjects. Halfway through the film Novak points down to a small circle of stones and declares that it’s the new pool. “I can’t wait til that thing fills full of water, and then I’m gonna get in it, he says. “Head first!” The irony of splashing into a cold pool in a place as dry as Ballarat is clearly not lost on Novak, who laughs the thought away with a mimed swan dive and a sly chuckle.
With The Mayor of Ballarat, Todiwala and Delgado have carved out a master class in documentary as portraiture. The few elements of artifice--shot selection, edit, score--are used to amplify Novak’s wisdom, idiosyncrasy and sardonic wit, often to darkly comic effect. It is this through-line of humor that saves the film from veering off into plainly nihilistic territory. Instead, through Novak’s eyes, we see the cosmic joke of contemporary existence mirrored back before us. That here, in the ruins of a crumbling ghost town, lives a man who knows that the promise of America was never in its purported greatness but rather in the cultivation of an independent spirit and the poetic yearning for a place to call one’s own.
Review By David Lombroso
See more of director Mickey and Monika’s work here.
Mayor of Ballarat was selected and screened for our VOL. 002 Series, November 25th, 2018