If you ask most people what the worst part about going to a coffee house is, they might say that there could be a folk singer or poet performing. If you ask them what would make it worse, they might say that the act is political. To the casual onlooker, the performers might appear to be wasting air in a fruitless endeavor to sway an audience of apathetic “screenwriters” and “influencers.” Through the lens of director Karen Kramer, however, they are an ignored link to a rich history of political action and social change.
Told without narration, Renegade Dreamers follows a group of politically-minded poets and folk singers as they travel from bar to coffee house to public spaces and back again in a quest to expand their art and get people politically motivated. Not to be famous, not even to make a living, but just to get people engaged in politics.
“…follows a group of politically-minded poets and folk singers as they travel from bar to coffee house to public spaces and back again…”
Now the lack of narration in Renegade Dreamers is important because at no point does Miss Kramer try to tell you how to feel about either the struggling artists or their progenitors. Instead, she presents you with their stories, told by them, and allows you to make your own conclusions. It is a brave and underused technique in documentary film making. Instead of trying to dazzle us with clever title cards, animations, or a snarky narrator, she merely allows the stories to unfold in front of her camera.
Renegade Dreamers also gives a history lesson of the folk and poetry movements of the civil rights era told by the people who lived it, how even the least engaged members of the community were forced into action by an oppressive society. Now, as an old folkie myself, there is actually a lot I didn’t know like the origin of snapping instead of applauding or the Washington Heights folk music riot.
The central question of the piece as far as I can tell is why poets and folk singers are no longer a political catalyst? She doesn’t try to answer that, but instead through b roll shows you our modern commercial world. She shows how we face civil rights questions every bit as important as the ones from our past. Then she shows the endless stream of distractions and commercials that modern Americans wade through on a daily basis. She shows the sensory overload of Times Square, then juxtaposes that with shots of our modern artists in tiny bars desperately trying to engage an audience of less than 10.
“For once we are shown the struggles of young people who aren’t trying to become rich and famous…”
I suppose I have two minor complaints.
1. Some of the modern subjects aren’t that great at performing. Filmed entirely in New York you’d imagine they’d be able to find more talented subjects. But, I suppose it isn’t really about talent. There are, after all, plenty of “reality” shows focusing on that. The documentary is more about passion and political engagement.
2. It is only filmed in New York. Again, I did the coffee house circuit as a young man, and there is a whole world out there of politically motivated performers. But, I suppose the budget might not have allowed for a nationwide tour. And focusing on New York allowed her to connect it to the coffee house history.
In the end, Renegade Dreamers is a refreshing documentary. For once we are shown the struggles of young people who aren’t trying to become rich and famous. For them, it isn’t about a desperate bid for notoriety and extravagance. For them, the goal is merely to try and get others to care about the world around them. It’s the story of young people, inspired by the example of great artists before them, rejecting modern comforts and ease to instead desperately scream their pleas for help to an apathetic world. Renegade Dreamers is a documentary that doesn’t ask it’s viewers to do anything beyond ask themselves, “When did you stop caring?”
Renegade Dreamers (2018) Directed by Karen Kramer
9 out of 10 shots of espresso