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By David Feltman | January 11, 2009

At first glance you might think the title of director Joe Biel’s documentary, $100 and a T-Shirt, might be describing the film’s budget. The lighting is bad, subtitles are occasionally employed for inaudible portions of interviews and the film quality is reminiscent of a home movie. Yet for a documentary about the DIY Zine subculture of the northwest, such financial short comings only make the viewing experience more immersive and a near perfect marriage of form and substance.

In case you’re out of the loop, a zine is like a print blog. Photocopied, stapled and often personally distributed by the writers, zines range in subjects from local bands, hobbies or what you ate for breakfast. But unlike a blog, zines are painstaking, time-intensive collages of words and art.

The “zinesters” behind these homemade publications are an eclectic and idiosyncratic crowd and Biel is smart to keep his camera focused solely on them. The camera sits motionless while the zinesters fill in the history and details of their subculture, drawing comparisons between themselves and such historical figures as Thomas Paine and Martin Luther. They can seem a little nerdy but that’s not to suggest that Biel is making fun of them; this isn’t a freak show like Trekkies or Darkon. $100 and a T-Shirt is a portrait of a group of passionate and creatively frustrated individuals crafting their own soapboxes.

The documentary flows smoothly, covering everything from what defines a zine and how they’re produced to politics and distribution issues. It’s a perfect introduction to the zine scene, offering a snapshot of the entire enterprise. There’s plenty of humorous and heartfelt tales of breaking into office buildings to use Xerox machines or scamming the local Kinkos. The film captures the rebellious nature of zines while simultaneously removing any notions of a hipster chic mystique.

Adding to the DIY esthetic of the film, the closing credits proudly claim that all of the equipment used to make the film was borrowed. $100 and a T-Shirt is in every way a love letter to the zine community, right down to the packaging that includes a DVD insert mini-zine about making the movie.

This is the third edition of the film and it comes packed with a wealth of deleted scenes and segments, some wisely excised and some inexplicably so. Segments focusing on more local elements of the northwest zine community and the personal histories of some of the zine creators would have gone a long way to enrich the documentary by tying it more closely to the area. And with a running time of barely an hour, the extra ten minutes of footage would hardly bog down the film. Bonus features also include two shorter documentaries, Record Playerz and Tennessee State Prison. Both are worth a look, but aren’t as interesting as the main feature.

Just based on the amount of love and enthusiasm that oozes from this production, it’s hard not to recommend this DVD. Sure the production values are shoddy and amateurish but it’s a perfect match for the subject matter. A slicker production would have felt out of place. If you’re ever remotely interested in zines, $100 and a T-Shirt is worth your time.

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