When Ben Kitnick first hung out at lo-fi art space and weirdo hangout Funny World last year, the ASU film student thought the house-show haven was a fascinating place. So much so that he immediately was struck by the notion that "someone needs to tell a story about this place."
Then he met its owner, Space-Alien Donald. And after interacting with the bizarrely gonzo and extremely unique spoken-word artist (self-described as "The World's Oldest Gay Canadian Rapper") it only confirmed the idea even more. Over the next six months, Kitnick got hours upon hours of footage of both the man and his venue, resulting in a recently released documentary short that's just as colorful as its subjects.
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Like many in the downtown Phoenix creative scene, Kitnick first learned about Funny World -- which boasts a DIY gallery vibe with its rainbow-painted walls and space for events ranging from art shows and spoken word sessions to concerts and science experiments -- via a combination of word-of-mouth and Facebook.
"Originally, I heard about it through a friend of a friend, then I got a Facebook invite. And I went and I'd never really seen a house show quite like it. Funny World is really a great place for artists because everything was so genuine and so unique," the 20-year-old says.
Ditto for Space-Alien Donald, who Kitnick found captivating, if not plenty unusual, because of the fact he's led a life unlike many others. As we reported around the time Funny World opened, the 78-year-old has had such wildly disparate life experiences as hitchhiking across North America, playing in rock 'n' roll bands, creating his own quasi-religion, performing "backyard science experiments," and working as technician in the radio astronomy lab at UC Berkeley.
"A lot of people have told me, when through the process of making it and then after watching it too, 'There really isn't anyone like him,'" Kitnick says. "I think he absolutely deserves to be the focus of his own documentary, because its pretty fascinating how a person can reinvent themselves, especially so late in life, and become someone entirely new."
Filming Space-Alien Donald (real name: Donald Roth) proved to be a blessing and a curse for Kitnick while editing all his video down to the final 10-minute-long version of the documentary, which is titled Funny World and debuted last week via online video site Vimeo.
It covers significant ground in a short time span, ranging from Roth's life history, travels, philosophies, obsessions with space, and his experiments with tachyons (theorized faster than light particles), as well as the outsider art vibe Funny World and the artists that frequently occupy the venue.
"There's so many different aspects to Space-Alien Donald," Kitnick says. "I have a ton of footage of Donald explaining his whole life and had to be very specific about what was included because it could've been very long and we only wanted the best bits and pieces."
To shoot Space-Alien Donald and the antics of Funny World, Kitnick tapped fellow ASU film student (and enormously talented auteur in his own right) Saxon Richardson to serve as cinematographer.
"He was really crucial throughout the entire process," Kitnick says. "His shots are just like flawless."
Richardson says that the documentary was purely "Ben's baby" and was happy to be along for the ride, especially since it opened his eyes to Funny World and its rogue's gallery of weirdoes, art brats, underground musicians, and creative freaks.
It was a bit of a culture shock at first, he admits, especially when he first tagged along with Kitnick on a visit.
"There happened to be the strangest act that's ever happened there was like the first thing I walked into. I don't even know who they were," Richardson says. "It was like two guys and they were in spiky football pads and singing to a like a Game Boy and like fighting over a Capri Sun. It was just like bizarre and I was terrified. I saw Donald across the room but I was too scared to talk to him."
Richardson eventually became more comfortable around Roth and his Funny World crew, many of whom were interviewed for the documentary, including puppeteer Tommy Cannon, photographer Daniel Funkhouser, and musicians Jason Kron and Tristan Jemsek.
It led to some unforgettable experiences while filming, he admits, like after he bought a half-dozen sets of coverall at a thrift store on a whim around the time he and Kitnick started filming.
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"Somehow Donald found out about them and made us all wear the brown suits to the first day of shooting," Richardson says. "We get into his house and he had Kraftwerk playing and, I don't know exactly it unfolded, but we all ended up dancing in his living room with him in these brown suits. It's like the strangest thing I think I've ever done."
He chalks up the impromptu dance off as just part of the magic of Funny World.
"The first time I went, it kinda freaked me out, but then listening to Donald talk, or like what Tristan says in the documentary, there's a lot of goofs there, but it's a place for them to do their thing," Richardson states. "Like, where else can you paint on walls and then dress in spiky football pads and have people love what you're doing. It's definitely its own culture, its own little community."