Pennsylvania has wheelbarrows, tractors, tractor tires, bicycles, trucks, custard cups and glasses, rifles, silverware, candlestick holders, and more, all rounded up for auction, handled by auction companies such as Zettlemoyer Auction Company in Fogelsville, which boasts three generations of speedy auctioneers who keep up a pace and tempo that makes every one of their auctions a sight to see. The youngest generation, grandson Eric, goes to houses with a crew to pull out potential merchandise for auctions, including a country estate in which two brothers and three sisters lived together. But after the two brothers died, the three sisters were aging and determined they couldn’t live in such a vast property anymore. That’s the business of auctions. As Eric says, auctions help keep these items out of landfills, which is good because no more land is being created.
Pennsylvania auctions also have a keen eye from filmmaker Susan Sfarra, who is nearly a one-woman band. She wrote, directed, produced and shot it, with assistance from George Sinfield as its editor, and additional camerawork by Jill Bauerle. She is a wonder, The Callers being her first film, because she has such a wonderful eye for the sights and sounds of an auction, as well as the Pennsylvania landscape. She’s insatiably curious, getting right up to where the auctioneers are, capturing one amusingly sarcastic auctioneer who’s getting no bids for one item. He goes as low as he can on the asking price, and in response to still no bids, says, “Nice, quiet auction.”
Behind one of the auctioneers during his interview segments are fields of Pennsylvania that have got to be the greenest you’ll ever see outside of Ireland. Every time they appear, I want to mosey through them, looking at all that grass around me, breathing in air that has got to be healthier in that one spot than what parts of the west offer. It’s not just the setting itself that unearths those emotions. It’s also Sfarra’s cinematography. She doesn’t provide any framework for auctions, no history, nothing to make an easy introduction into this world. She does it the way auctioneers and buyers and sellers alike do it: Just jump right in, wade around, and you’ll find your footing. If you don’t, auctions aren’t for you.
The culture is utterly fascinating, as we learn about the tells of various buyers during auctions, how they indicate their bid, how the auctioneers aren’t the only callers. Every bid calls out, “I want that!” The buyers are calling out just as much by their movements as the auctioneers are in their vocal performances. It’s a quick back-and-forth that never wavers until the last bid is absolutely the last bid and the item being auctioned gains a new owner.
The auctions themselves, the auctioneers, the buyers, all have interesting stories to tell, the auctioneers about how they got started, that there are actually auction schools which train new generations of auctioneers (including tongue-twister exercises and a marbles-in-your-mouth exercise), and the buyers about why they attend auctions, including the truest statement from buyer John McGarry, who says, “The auction house is a stage and everybody’s got their bit part in it.”
Sfarra’s dedication to covering all those parts is evident throughout, but after half an hour, it plays more like a tutorial than a documentary, which has its uses, but there are fewer and fewer intriguing stories after the auctioneers and buyers have all talked out their stories. Her visual sense already second to none, Sfarra must strengthen her storytelling sense, because there is potential here, lots of it that could bloom into something great. She’s lucky because The Callers is a fine debut and a great starting point, like the beginning of a heated auction. Judging from her biography on the DVD from First Run Features, she’s got a unique view of life that makes me eager to know she’s thinking of next.
The DVD includes a few bonus scenes, including the tongue twisters used at an auction school, auctioneer Lori Zytkowicz talking about the classes she teaches at an auction school, “Confessions of a Calling Champion,” and a tractor parade and a look at chainsaw art being auctioned off. If you put this DVD in your DVD-ROM drive, you can see .pdf files of practice drills made up of tongue twisters and numbers. The Callers shows yet again that First Run Features never has to strive to be unique. It always has a corner on that in the DVD market.
The Callers is like some documentaries you find on PBS, such as A Flea Market Documentary from 2001, which are there if you want to know about worlds you’ve never experienced or have visited but don’t know very much about. You’ll learn a lot about auctions here and even when you’re just staring like the rest of the buyers, waiting for something more to happen, look at those quilts, that farming equipment, those tractors, and imagine the history in all of it. A strong filmmaker can give you more than what you’re paying attention to, when you can look off where the camera is focused and see something else, something new. Sfarra could very well become a great filmmaker because of a good start like that. She’ll get there.