ARTS: From Knob Creek To The Big Screen

The Story Of A Homegrown Filmmaker ◆ by Malia Bruker

In the 10 years that I have been making films, my childhood spent at Knob Creek Road in Lawrence County, Indiana has always been a strong influence. I realized early on that my Mom and Dad were very different from my friends’ parents. My mom wore Birkenstocks with socks, didn’t shave her armpits, and didn’t eat meat (no, not even chicken). My dad played bass in jazz bands, had a big beard in a time and place of bare faces, and had no patience for conservative or religious bigotry. We stood out in Bedford, the traditional farming town where I went to school, but fit perfectly at Knob Creek, our little hippie community at the end of a gravel, dead-end road 20 miles from Bloomington.

It wasn’t until I left Indiana and saw a bit more of the world that I began to understand how others might describe Knob Creek: it was not a commune, but perhaps an intentional community. My parents and their friends were back-to-the-landers, fed up with consumerism and environmental degradation.

When I began studying media production at Florida State University, I once again felt out of place. I was not obsessed with any particular film director like my fellow students, and I had never heard of the French New Wave. I hadn’t even seen Star Wars. But despite the geographic isolation, the lack of exposure to media, and the relaxed, earthy lifestyle of my youth, I actually think that Knob Creek provided me a great background for being a filmmaker.

There were 10 children living at Knob Creek at its height, and all but two were girls. Although my brother found this situation something resembling hell, for me it was perfect. Most of our parents were not big on TV. We only got a few channels anyway, so we were often left to our own imaginations out in the wilderness. We played in the creek, grinded “make-up” out of the bedrock stones, pretended we were explorers, and spooked ourselves by imagining ghosts and witches in the woods. I’m convinced that if screenwriters had access to the mind of a bored child they  would have a lot better stories to tell.


Malia Bruker At Knob Creek

Without the constant entertainment of TV or those nice, paved suburban roads to bike on, I read. A lot. I remember going to the Monroe and Lawrence County Libraries and piling up more books than my spindly legs could carry. (We did borrow the odd movie here or there as well—Spaceballs was a family favorite.) Although I didn’t realize it at the time, by reading so voraciously I was learning how to tell a story, how to build characters, and how to draw in an audience so well that you could even forget you’re in the middle of nowhere in Indiana in the midst of a hot, humid summer and your brother doesn’t want to play with you.

Because we were in such a remote area, our schools were quite small, and our classrooms were sparsely populated. In my 6th and final year at Heltonville Elementary, we only had 12 kids in the entire grade. That kind of attention from teachers, many very good ones, made my elementary and middle school education as solid as any private one. I kept reading and I even wrote my first book, Cloudy with a Chance of Furries, as an extra credit assignment (I’m still waiting for it to be picked up by Harper-Collins). I have never had much trouble putting pen to paper, which has made the first steps of creating a film much easier.

Knob Creek was also full of creative people—actors, photographers, painters, quilters and a lot of musicians. Bonfire sing-a-longs were regular occurrences, among other communal performances. What began as charades on New Year’s Eve turned into an all-out yearly performance of prepared skits and scenes. I have not one single memory of fireworks at midnight, but the images of the grown-ups, red in the face and dressed in costume, are still clear in my mind. One of the moms even wrote plays for us kids to perform, which were thrilling despite the fact that the stage was a creek bank and the audience sat in chairs in a field. There is still nothing I like better than participating in an act of creativity, and I learned early on that it is best when collaborative—essential qualities for a filmmaker.

When my family left Knob Creek and moved to Miami, Florida my junior year of high school, my entire life changed drastically. That is probably very obvious and also an understatement. I was quite different from my peers, a fact only exacerbated by my history teacher, who told all of his classes about “the Indiana kid who lived where there are farms!” Despite my attempts to fit in, I was “the Indiana kid,” or just “Indiana” according to my basketball coach, or even “Wyoming” to our senile athletic director.  Instead of isolating myself, I opened up in Miami, and found that as boring as my life might have been, it was interesting to those kids because they had never heard anything like it. If there is one thing I could say about my favorite film directors, it would be that they have unique perspectives. I hope they could say the same about me.

My family has been quite mobile since our time at Knob Creek. My parents moved from Miami, back to Bloomington, then to California. I moved from Florida to Colorado to Philadelphia, where I now live. My documentary, Heirloom, is the closest I’ve come to capturing what Knob Creek has meant to me throughout all of these changes, although most of the film was shot elsewhere. Heirloom is set on a 4-month long road trip I took with my parents as they returned from their home in California to Bloomington, where they will retire. Throughout the film, as my parents get closer and closer to their home, I realize that I really cannot go back to Knob Creek, not the Knob Creek of my childhood. It is a tough realization, the stiff awakening from the nostalgia of youth, but in the process I learned that Knob Creek has carried me this far and will be with me the rest of my filmmaking days.


Coming Home?

[Editor’s note: Heirloom will have its premiere screening in Bloomington at Bear’s Place on August 17th at 5:30pm. Malia Bruker’s recent film Chase, which takes a humorous look at the banking industry, will screen prior to Heirloom, and she will be in attendance to discuss both films.]

The Ryder ◆ July 2013