Though Ryan Noble's documentary A Day With Sheriff Joe is just 29 minutes long, its title is apt. Half an hour of listening to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio talk really does feel like putting in a full day.
It could have been longer--feature-length, even--had Noble used all of the interview footage he shot. According to the affable 26-year-old filmmaker, whose senior project at Brigham Young University this was, "We shot two or three rolls of him, and it was just his usual media facade. It was our big thing, and we ended up not using any of it. I wanted the real Joe."
Based on the film as it stands, a viewer might wonder if there was any difference between the Real Joe and the Media Facade. A Day With Sheriff Joe, shot not in one day but over 10 or 12 days in June and September of 1996, shows Arpaio talking to camera crews, to school assemblies, to Republican groups. It's all his usual rap--he's got everybody's support 'cause he's saving the county so much money, but they're all out to get him, but he's not paranoid, and above all, he's not doing any of this for the publicity or nothin' like that. And he makes the inmates wear pink underwear, y'know.
There's no mention of the charges against him of brutality or neglect, although Noble began shooting just two weeks after the death of inmate Scott Norberg. "Somebody gave me the impression that I might as well not even ask him about it," says Noble, "but it definitely was hanging over the shooting."
We see Arpaio irritably responding briefly to gripes by female prisoners on the women's side of Tent City, and there's a segment featuring a chain gang with an excellent song by the Revenants (then called Suicide Kings) on the soundtrack. We see Arpaio at home, watching himself on the Dennis Miller show with his wife--"A wonderful woman, by the way," remarks Noble. "She's probably a saint, considering." What we don't see is Arpaio doing a single bit of administrative work. You'd think he was in show business. The video box for Noble's film promises the portrait of an "exciting and refreshing man and his message," but intentionally or not, A Day With Sheriff Joe emerges less as a puff piece than as the expose of a media pig.
"I tried to be as objective as possible," says Noble, who, as Arpaio's Leni Riefenstahl, speaks of the sheriff with amusement. "Personally, I kind of enjoy his humorous side. He's a really happy-go-lucky kind of guy. I can't say I particularly agree with his policies." Noble admits that the video-box copy was written partly in hopes of selling the film through right-wing magazines. "It's how the sheriff likes to see himself, and how people like to see him. I sold out," he sighs. Noble's been having a hard time marketing the film, even to Arpaio supporters, and that isn't surprising, even though it's a professionally made piece of work. For one thing, the media market is saturated with Arpaio images, and for another, Arpaio's a pretty boring camera subject. Once you've gotten over your astonishment that this man is actually our county turnkey--indeed, that he's been given any position of responsibility--there's not much else of interest about him.
It's possible that Arpaio agrees. Recently Noble showed his film to the sheriff and his wife. The sheriff's response? "He laughed the whole time," says Noble. "He just said, 'Why did you do this? You think this is a documentary? This is a comedy.'" Maybe Arpaio should think about switching to film criticism.
There are two wonderful moments in A Day With Sheriff Joe, and both of them are funny. In one, Noble pans from Joe's blabbing face to his feet, and we see his ankles peeking between his socks and his pant cuffs. In the other, for which Noble credits his cinematographer Michael Van Wagenen, we see Arpaio's voice coming out of his shadow as he speaks at a podium. It's a great visual metaphor--the outline of a lawman, free of substance but plenty full of talk.
--M. V. Moorhead
A Day With Sheriff Joe will be screened at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 30, at Harkins Camelview 5, located on Goldwater Boulevard north of Camelback in Scottsdale. A $3 donation is requested. A video version for $15 can be ordered by calling 598-2796.