WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY)
Potty Town movie review
Most people in the North Country are familiar with the art of toilets in Potsdam. While people may not know many of the details, or even Hank Robar’s name, they’ve seen photos of the ubiquitous toilet gardens and vaguely understand the genesis of their proliferation. Their presence and the story behind them has become folklore, and with all folklore comes expanded truth or mythical truth. jar town directed by Morgan Elliot tries to get to the bottom of the porcelain problem.
The doc sheds light on a two-decade-long feud between landowner Robar and the village of Potsdam that begins when Robar loses his appeal to change the junction of one of his properties from residential to commercial. As a result, he loses $650,000, which is the price Dunkin’ Donuts was going to pay. Because Dunkin can’t build a store there, they turn around the corner and Robar is furious when one of his neighbors, and not him, gets the pot of gold. Most of us would have the same reaction, but few of us would go as far as Robar to voice our displeasure by collecting and setting up toilet gardens all over town.
This setup creates an immediate story, but like all good stories it has layers and Elliot and the filmmakers have done an amazing job of exploring the depth of a story that could have been a footnote. The situation is inherently funny, and there are hysterical moments in this film, even when it attacks First Amendment rights. Much of this humor comes from the concept of – what is art? How is art defined? Discarded toilets with plastic flowers stuck in them, art? Is Robar an artist? Has he evolved and become an artist over the course of the quarrel? Can junk food be art? I loved the section on Dada and its context in modern art history.
The puns on Potsdam and “potty” and the joke keeps spelling Potsdam backwards to mean madstop are fun. Plus, the delight is the national recognition the city gets from the toilet gardens. Robar’s fate has inspired songs and at least one play.
When all else fails and the village cannot get Robar to remove the toilet through legal process, village administrators create a new ordinance in 2018 that specifically prohibits “discarded bathroom fixtures” on the front lawns. It’s overt and specific maneuvers like this that make it hard not to believe the village is acting vindictively. Or maybe they just try anything to get what they want, removing toilets because they really believe they are ruining the beautification of their village.
Two major challenges face most documentaries, a story arc that asks a central question and presenting both sides of the story objectively. The film makes it clear several times that the filmmakers asked village administrators and other toilet opponents for comment, and they repeatedly refused. This only incriminates them, especially when it comes to their fluid zoning regulations which can seem like they are embracing cronyism. This may have the public rooting more and more for the little man, who is trying to fight the town hall. However, Robar comes across as anything but the helpless little man. He may hope he seems avuncular and naive, but he often doesn’t. He’s smart and cunning and knows exactly what he’s doing.
While you can Google the outcome of Robar’s final trial, the filmmakers do a good job of asking a central question that isn’t answered until the end. I really enjoyed this movie and was impressed with how it balanced so many themes, while being extremely entertaining. A man should be able to do what he wants with his property, and sometimes you can fight the town hall.
It’s short, witty and its visuals enhance the storytelling, kudos to Morgan Elliot and his team
Currently, the film is available to stream on multiple platforms for a fee.
Click here to see WWNY News 7’s interview with the filmmaker.
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