In just a few days, Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden will be driving down to Whiting, Indiana for Pierogi Fest, a gathering of aficionados of the Polish dumplings which originally lured the two filmmaking friends from Chicago in 2006 with the promise of possibly capturing the unveiling of the world’s largest pierogi and for Rybicky, a chance to eat pierogis just like the ones his grandmother used to make. Yet as fate would have it, something caught their eye before their stomachs could take over, a 76-year-old bowtie-wearing artist named Peter Anton, who was sketching out pastel portraits for customers.
“He just felt like one of those people that you meet whose story you really want to know about,” says Rybicky, who was drawn in as much by the corny jokes Anton lobbed at passerbys as much as his colorful, uniquely handcrafted art. “There was also this sense of a guy who seemed down on his luck and maybe needed people like us to help him get his work out into the world.”
In fact, when Rybicky and Wickenden return to Pierogi Fest with Anton in tow this week, it will be something of a triumph. After eight years of following the artist, the two will present an early look at the resulting documentary “Almost There” in the place where it all started, not only for the directors, but for the artist who once performed on the stage of the recently restored Hoosier Theater as part of his talent club in 1951. Yet true to its title, the film is not quite complete, which is why the filmmakers have launched a Kickstarter campaign, currently raising funds before an August 8th deadline.
“The project started out as a way of us wanting to help Peter tell his story because it seemed like his last life’s wish,” recalls Rybicky, who with Wickenden, began corresponding with Anton after Pierogi Fest, not necessarily intending to make a movie about him. “Initially, we just were helping Peter try to get his art seen in Chicago and have an exhibition for the first time in his life, and we thought that it would be great to contextualize the exhibition by taking photographs of his process. But then when we started showing the photos to people, people started to question how mentally capable he was, and at that point, we thought, well, he’s pretty capable mentally, why don’t we just use our same DSL cameras that we were using to shoot photos, and start filming him.”
What emerged was a story as rich as the brilliant pastels Anton uses for his work, with Rybicky and Wickenden often allowing Anton’s autobiographical work to be a guide for the film. Taking its title from the name of the exhibit that Anton envisioned for his collection of 12 scrapbooks of paintings and photographs from his life, the film alternates between Anton’s present-day struggle to mount a show, fighting off the toll of old age while living in his dilapidated family home, and his difficult past, which he expresses in vivid detail through his art, from his days as a substitute teacher to performing as part of a vaudeville act during the 1950s to bouts with mental instability and poverty during the 1980s. Such experiences that may have hardened Anton as a person, contributing to his prickly personality which is on full display in “Almost There”‘s amusing Kickstarter pitch video, yet it also made it possible for him to endure countless setbacks on his way to finding a proper platform for his work. Rybicky and Wickenden strived for being as honest with audiences in their film as Anton has been throughout his career.
“Our film lifts the veil back a little bit on the relationship that happens between a subject and a filmmaker,” says Rybicky. “It explores the things in that relationship that happen in a lot of the filmmaker friends of mine that make docs, but they never film.”
While the film has received funding from the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and is being produced by the legendary Chicago-based documentary company Kartemquin, Rybicky and Wickenden turned to Kickstarter to help with the rollout of “Almost There” as it hits the festival circuit and seeks a theatrical release. For the duo, getting as wide a release as possible isn’t about financial gain, but rather to achieve their ultimate goal of getting the broadest exposure possible for Anton’s art, perhaps allowing audiences to embrace it in the same way as they did in “Finding Vivian Maier,” which Wickenden edited in the interim. On that score, the project may already be considered a success, given how many people have been claiming Anton’s portraits for rewards on Kickstarter.
“I’m just excited that people are starting to see Peter’s art,” says Rybicky. “We just sold out of all of his portraits and he’s offered to do some paintings, but people are going pretty crazy for his art. I look forward to seeing more of it in the world after we open.”
With some help from the crowd, there will be.