Oxford family is thrust into the limelight by a movie that calls them criminals
● By J. Chambless
The Arnold family of Oxford has had their home movies turned into a feature film called 'Fraud.'
By John Chambless
In an era when cameras are pointed
everywhere, at everyone, the Arnold family of Oxford has found
themselves the subject of a film that casts them as nervous,
overspending, bankrupt arsonists. And they're thrilled.
“Fraud” is a 55-minute film assembled over the internet by director Dean Fleischer-Camp in 2016. It mines the family's home videos that dad Gary Arnold had uploaded to YouTube, and by inserting some key scenes from other sources, it seems to show them burning down their house in a case of insurance fraud.
For his part, Arnold is happy to maintain that he is not a criminal. But he is a bemused, semi-movie star whose family is at the center of a little storm. “Fraud” has gotten critical acclaim as it has gradually rolled out at independent film festivals, but it has also brought some consternation from audiences who accuse the director of stealing other people's lives and lying to the audience.
Arnold said last week that Fleischer-Camp selecting his family in particular was up to chance. “Apparently, Dean found our YouTube channel quite by accident,” he said. “YouTube often suggests similar styled videos to what one is watching, and this type of suggestion is how he discovered our channel. Lucky us! We feel fortunate to have been chosen. Life has a certain randomness to it, and sometimes delivers a welcome surprise.”
The initial contact from a director he didn't know took Arnold by surprise, he said. “I was contacted via a message posted in my inbox on YouTube in the spring of 2015,” he said. “At first I thought it was a joke or likely a scammer, and almost deleted it. Thankfully, after a little online research, I discovered Dean had already made a decent reputation for himself with a collection of award-winning children's books and stop-motion animations about an anthropomorphic seashell that wears shoes, called 'Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.' So I decided to reply.
“When he contacted me, Dean hadn't
started working on his movie yet,” Arnold added. “He just had
these outlandish ideas for some type of art project. I'm a big fan
of art, and said, 'Go for it.'”
What “Fraud” does, with its jumpy, speed-freak style, is tell a story of our media-obsessed age. Innocuous scenes of the Arnold family at their home in Oxford, going on vacation, visiting local sites and generally living their lives have been carefully edited to depict them in an entirely ficticious way. It's a mind-bending style of cinema that is part “Blair Witch Project” and part “Truman Show,” and it opens the door to a whole new genre of filmmaking – borrowed source material spun a whole new way.
“I think he found the straightforward, home-style aesthetic refreshing because we weren't trying to create a brand or image,” Arnold said. “I just filmed whatever weekend adventure.”
The videos feature Gary, his wife Antje Arnold (who recently wrote a book about her life behind the Berlin Wall), and their children, Joshua, 16, and Kylee, 13.
“Fraud” raises fascinating questions, among them the fact that a family documenting their arson and sharing it with the world seems almost sensible in our share-everything age. But the fact that Fleischer-Camp did the whole thing remotely makes it kind of scary.
There's a YouTube video that dissects how he did it, showing the editing process. The director put thousands of tiny video clips into separate files (“Nice shots/sequences,” “Money”) and even snippets of dialogue (“Dad – Alright guys let's do it”) and then edits them together with Final Cut Pro X software to spin a narrative in which the actors aren't really acting. To show them burning down their home, he uses video of Antje spray-cleaning the carpet, then Googles “electrical fire in house” and “sparking outlet,” inserts the footage, and then shows a house on fire. Gary says, “It went straight up. That's what we want.” The edgy, quick-cut style perfectly suits the headlong rush of the subject matter.
“Given Dean's impeccable reputation as someone who creates children's material, my wife and I remained completely confident he wouldn't create something obscene or objectionable,” Arnold said. “Dean formally licensed our home movies, and about a year later, 'Fraud' debuted, much to our delight.
“It is simply amazing to see what Dean and his editor, Jonathan Rippon, created. This film demonstrates the power of selective editing to manipulate an audience, and the potential to abuse such power in the era of almost nightly claims of 'fake news.'”
Despite the arguments that some critics have made about the director hijacking a family's movies, Arnold said, “We never felt exploited by any of this. This is an art film, all in good fun. Just sit back and enjoy the magic of Hollywood.”
In online interviews, Fleischer-Camp said he was drawn to Arnold's jumpy video technique, which made it easier to build tension in the narrative. “Yes, my style of filming can be unsettling in that I treat the camera lens as an extension of my eye,” Arnold said, laughing. “Therefore, I will often move quickly from one interest to another, zoom in and out to focus on whatever suddenly grabs my attention. Having a short attention span actually worked to my advantage as I filmed tidbits of everything.”
Arnold's wife, Antje, agrees that the family wan't exploited. “Dean never hijacked our footage. We still control our home movies,” she said. “We gave him permission to use our footage and use it to create an interesting take on a documentary. However, in this age and time, you make yourself vulnerable every time you put content on any social media platform, which means anything that has an innocent starting point can be taken out of context.”
Given the groundbreaking experiment their family has just been part of, Arnold said he's enjoying the attention. “I'm not sure what the genre should be called,” he said of the film. “But whatever the name that gets decided upon, it should at least sound interesting.”
“Fraud” is now streaming via iTunes and VUDU, and will soon be available on Amazon Movies.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.