In September 2009, Alex Jablonski and Michael Totten set themselves an ambitious goal: to make one documentary every month for a year. The editor-cinematographer team explored a variety of stories throughout Southern California, from family circuses to unemployment to stripper karaoke. It's been 12 months, and their project, called Sparrow Songs, has now completed its 12th and final episode, about the arrival of football season in the small California town of Trona.
Jablonski says he was inspired to start the project when he met John Wood, a musician who consistently released one album every month for several years. Jablonski approached Totten with the idea to do the same thing, but with film, and things came full circle when Wood became the subject of Sparrow Songs' first episode. "I loved the idea of just committing to something and just doing it," Totten says. "This idea that you don't need to go out and ... raise a ton of money and have a giant crew and make it this whole big thing."
Just as Wood was the perfect subject for the project's inception, Trona is fitting for the finale. Episode 12 does in a single film what the entire series has been attempting: "It takes all these folks in the town and offers ... a collective view of the town itself," Jablonski says. "With Sparrow Songs, we've made 12 films about all these different lives ... and collectively they give you a much greater picture about how life in America is being lived in 2010 — much better than any one individual could."
The subjects of the films vary widely, and each film was used to experiment with different documentary traditions and styles, but all the stories are personal in one way or another. In June, the pair made Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film" and received quite a bit of attention — and, with it, high expectations. Wondering who else had to deal with such pressure, they turned their cameras on the minor-league baseball players in the Lancaster Jethawks. These men, the filmmakers found, play ball because they love it, and that struck a chord. "That's the right attitude to have," Jablonski says.
The two became good friends through the process, and although their year-long documentary boot camp is over, Jablonski and Totten say they hope to continue Sparrow Songs in some form. "It was a lot of fun," Jablonski says. "I didn't think it was going to be as much fun as it was." As for what's next, exactly, audiences will have to wait and see.