Life is hard. In order to survive, some people have chosen to get by with less. Scott Goldberg’s film is about those people. Off the Grid: Survivalism and Frugality follows two houseless men who live out of their vans and document their world with Super 8 film and old VHS camcorders.
We first meet Chiko, who plays an old pawn shop acoustic guitar like a background character from a Sergio Leone western film. He explains that although his life is hard, because he is a survivalist, he would never trade in the life he chose.
Chiko identifies “Scott” (Goldberg) as the “guy behind the camera” he has hired to document “the behind the scenes of my journey” and we soon realize the meta nature Goldberg’s film as Chiko proceeds to explain his intention to document the way he has learned to survive, because “it would be a total waste of my own life if my didn’t show you how I got through certain events in my life.”
If Chiko is making a first person film about how to survive, Goldberg is giving us a film about creating a legacy.
Although Goldberg’s characters are almost always alone in frame, often walking through the unkempt wilderness of the Montauk, Chiko is constantly picking up objects and identifying clues to the existence of other people. He shows us tree carvings, discarded trash, and an old dot matrix printed ledger in an abandoned industrial park, perhaps left behind by the accounting department.
The ledger tells a story of all the money that once passed through this building, now abandoned and falling apart, but what Chiko finds most interesting is the people who worked here. Where did they go? Was the closing of the factory traumatizing to them? Optimistically, Chiko suggests that they went on to bigger and greater things, leaving the ruins of the factory behind with Chiko standing in the middle, playing his guitar, listening to the sound of his voice reverberate through the forgotten space.
We also meet Lee, who also lives in a van and is compelled to document his experiences with a retro camcorder. Lee’s journey takes him to Hero Park in Montauk, where his father once worked until his untimely death in the 70s. This was a traumatic experience for Lee for which he has never been able to find closure.
Like Chiko, Lee speaks directly to camera with precise language. Goldberg carries this confidence in how he frames his subject in the center of the frame, looking down the barrel of the lens and into our eyes. It’s intimate, like Goldberg’s characters could be personal friends or someone we met one day in the park.
The soundtrack is a mixture of Chiko’s acoustic guitar musings and Goldberg’s own extreme John Carpenter inspired synth stylings. Together with the ambient sounds of Montauk state park’s chirping birds and shallow creek beds and visuals of retro 80’s technology, abandoned buildings and the “80s metal band” graffiti that adorns their decaying walls, Goldberg has created as aesthetic that is both fresh and completely familiar.
Living in San Francisco, I have countless opportunities to meet houseless people. I am writing this now from my luxury Mission District apartment where I can look out the window and see tents where people live on the sidewalk. Goldberg’s film challenges us, the viewer, to consider the evidence of life around us and how the spaces we create shape the lives of others. And further, maybe open ourselves up to a conversation and make experiences like this for ourselves.