Todd Lothery's 'A Reel Man' 

Laura McPhee

Laura McPhee Skip Elsheimer is the subject of "A Reel Man" A Reel Man, by the Indianapolis-based filmmaker Todd Lothery, is a profile of Skip Elsheimer, a Raleigh, N.C., resident who collects educational, service and industry films going back to the 1940s. His archive includes nearly 17,000 films on every conceivable instructional topic: sex ed, personal hygiene, public safety, driver’s ed, job training, the dangers of drugs and alcohol and a frightening number of “how to be popular” films aimed at teen-agers. Elshiemer’s films are campy, amusing and far from subtle in their propagandist messages. But they are also valuable, fascinating time capsules that reflect America’s social attitudes and cultural values throughout the last half-century. A Reel Man writer and director Todd Lothery has managed to capture both the charm and the quirkiness of these old 16mm films, as well as the man who collects them. Lothery’s documentary moves back and forth between Elsheimer and his no-frills storage facility where films are stacked to the ceiling to extended clips of the old films themselves. As Elsheimer explains how he came to own the assortment of how-to films, and why he feels they are worth saving, he evolves from a guy with a weird hobby into a much-needed and much-appreciated curator of souvenirs from all of our pasts. “We remember these films as being campy and a little cheesy back then, but when you watch them two or three, or even five, decades later they are even more hilarious and more compelling,” the filmmaker says. “They really are a weird slice of American history.” The inclusion of A Reel Man in the Indianapolis International Film Festival marks several significant events for the writer/director. Lothery and his wife moved back to Indiana last winter to be closer to family, and having his first film be part of the film festival couldn’t be a better welcome home celebration. “This is the first film festival for Reel Man, and it does mean a lot that it’s here in Indianapolis, and I am considered a local,” Lothery says. “It’s a really exciting time.” Like the man who collects old movies, Lothery is a filmmaker and an anthropologist documenting the parts of America’s past that are far too often discarded when a newer, shinier model comes along. He has already begun his next project, a documentary about Indianapolis’ legendary Hampton Sisters, who also happen to be recipients of NUVO’s Cultural Vision Lifetime Achievement Award this year. “These women and the story they have to tell are so amazing,” according to Lothery. “I hope I can tell their story through film in a way that matches who they are, like I did with Skip. This one is a lot more involved, more music, more money, more business,” he says with a hint of trepidation. “But I’m having a great time.”

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