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DC/DOX 2024: The Magical Time Capsule of 'Secret Mall Apartment'

This review is part of my ongoing coverage of DC/DOX film festival. See also: Hollywoodgate.


Secret Mall Apartment. Doesn’t the title alone pique your curiosity? Director Jeremy Workman recalled, slightly in jest, that he was once given some advice: the best thing you could possibly do for your film was put the word “secret” in its title. Hey, it worked on me. 

Truthfully, I was drawn to the screening by the quality of his two other movies – The World Before Your Feet (2018) and Lily Topples the World (2021) – and was also hoping to watch something a little more optimistic after Hollywoodgate. Fortunately, Secret Mall Apartment fits perfectly into Workman’s holonic, artist-fascinated filmography. A tale that truly earns the journalistic cliché of “nestled,” this story is nestled in a mall, a town, and a legacy. 


Providence, Rhode Island, 2003. Gentrifying forces have demolished key parts of the city's downtown neighborhoods and replaced them with a massive shopping mall. An art professor, Michael Townsend, and seven of his most loyal students undertake a rebellious project: try to live in the mall for a week. They allegedly managed to do so, living off food court scraps and entertaining themselves by watching movies and trying on clothes, all while their Pentax Optio camera rolled. Eventually, they got to exploring the interior alleys behind the major stores. As they ventured further into the belly of the mall, they came across a significant cranny. Behind the drywall, up a ladder, the team saw a new opportunity for artistic expression – they saw a space where they could make a home.

The irreverence of the secret apartment prank aside (protagonist Michael Townsend attested that he turned down 30-ish proposals to turn the story into a documentary because of how superficially other documentarians proposed to treat the topic), there is some legitimate heft to Workman's film that is gradually unveiled. Townsend and his ex-wife saw the construction of an illegal home in the mall as a valid response to gentrification projects happening around them. To maximize profit, the Providence developers attested that they must “tap into underutilized space.” Well, wasn’t that what this artist team was doing inside the mall? The "micro-developers," as they called themselves, traveled to the local Salvation Army to make their plan come to life.


There is no convenient way to decorate an abandoned room in a well-surveilled architectural cavity. Natural barriers included a security alarm, a vertical ladder as the most convenient way to access the room, and a lack of electricity. Many of the most amusing moments in the film capture the eight starving artists hoisting cabinets and couches directly to the sky. Eventually, Michael decides to build a supplemental wall in front of their compound, for extra protection against back alley snoopers. The group deigned to carry 4-5 thousand pounds of cinderblocks from the local Home Depot into a random hole in the mall. Yes, the “prank” was that elaborate. The team reassured themselves that they were “no more than a barnacle on a whale.”

The film goes beyond the mall story to show what else Townsend and his students were working on, including tape art tributes to 9/11’s fallen public servants and hospital art. The mall was a side project, but ultimately the one that got them the most attention when they were eventually discovered. The later use of scenario recreations in a studio-set replica of the apartment (as it has since been destroyed) adds a meta layer to the film, whose file size and quality of early-2000s archival footage is nothing short of remarkable. 


Fortunately, the door that Townsend had installed in his homemade cinderblock wall is still accessible by key – Workman gave out 2 keys to the respondents of documentary-based trivia questions after the film. A woman in the audience began to cry when called upon to give her testimony: she, too, was an artist from Providence, and she wanted to know how she could fuck shit up like them. Another individual, after declaring that this was “the best movie [they’ve] seen since Matilda,” professed that they used to get stoned at the Providence Dave & Buster’s across from the mall, and couldn’t believe that the apartment project was happening simultaneously next door. Townsend, who was on the panel with Workman, encouraged the audience to keep “trying and failing constantly.” For anyone less bold, he reassured, institutional allies are just as vital as artists themselves.

As a final fun factoid, Jesse Eisenberg served as executive producer for the documentary, and Workman suggested that he might be wanting to turn the story into a narrative film. Well, as long as “secret” stays in the title, it’s sure to be a success.


Secret Mall Apartment debuted at SXSW this year. As of June 19, it does not have a wide release date.


-Lydia

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