Potty Town - Documentary Movie Review
Potsdam’s Toilet Saga is Highlighted in New Doc.
WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY)
Potty Town Movie Review
Most North Country residents know something about the toilet art in Potsdam. Although people may not know many details, or even Hank Robar’s name, they have seen photos of the ubiquitous toilet gardens, and vaguely understand the genesis of their proliferation. Their presence and the story behind them have become folklore, and with all folklore comes a stretched truth or mythic truth. Potty Town direct by Morgan Elliot attempts to get to the bottom of the porcelain problem.
The doc illuminates a two-decade feud between landowner Robar and the village of Potsdam that begins when Robar loses his appeal to change the joining of one of his properties from residential to commercial. As a result of this, he loses $650,000, which is the price Dunkin’ Donuts was going to pay. Because Dunkin cannot build a store there, they go around the corner, and Robar is furious when one of his neighbors, and not him gets the pot of gold. Most of us would have the same reaction, but not many of us would go as far as Robar to express his displeasure by collecting and setting up toilet gardens all over town.
This set-up creates an immediate story, but like all good stories, it has layers and Elliot and the filmmakers have done a stellar job in mining the depth of a story that could have been one note. The situation is inherently funny and there are some hysterical moments in this movie, even when it is tackling first amendment rights. Much of this humor generates from the concept of-what is art? How is art defined? Are discarded toilets with plastic flowers stuck in them, art? Is Robar an artist? Did he evolve and become an artist as the length of the feud progressed? Can junk be art? I loved the section on Dada and its context in modern art history.
Puns on Potsdam and “potty” and the ongoing joke of spelling Potsdam backwards to mean madstop are fun. Also, fun is the national recognition the town gets because of the toilet gardens. Robar’s plight has inspired songs and at least one play.
When all else fails, and the village cannot get Robar to remove the toilets through legal proceedings, the village trustees create a new ordinance in 2018 which specifically prohibits “discarded bathroom fixtures” on front lawns. It’s overt and specific maneuvers like this that make it difficult to not believe that the village is acting vindictively. Or perhaps they are just trying anything to get what they want, the removal of the toilets because they truly believe they are ruining the beautification of their village.
Two major challenges face most documentaries, a story arc that poses a central question and presenting both sides of the story-objectively. The film clearly states on number of occasions that the filmmakers asked Village Trustees and other opponents of the toilets for comment, and they repeatedly declined. This does nothing but incriminate them, especially when it comes to their fluid zoning regulations that may appear they are embracing cronyism. This may sway the audience into rooting more and more for the little man, who is attempting to fight city hall. However, Robar comes across as anything but the helpless little man. He may hope he appears avuncular and naïve, but he often doesn’t. He is intelligent and shrewd and knows exactly what he is doing.
Although you can google the outcome of Robar’s final lawsuit, the filmmakers do a good job at posing a central question that isn’t answered until the end. I really enjoyed this film and was impressed with how it balanced so many themes, while being immensely entertaining. A man should be able to do whatever he wants with his property, and sometimes you can fight city hall.
It is brief, witty, and its visuals enhance the storytelling, kudos to Morgan Elliot and his team
Currently the film is streamable on several platforms for a fee.
Click here to see the WWNY News 7 interview with the filmmaker.
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