Back in 2005 when Sufjan Stevens released Illinois following up Michigan, the 2003 disc dedicated to his home state, an eager indie music media anticipated a 50-state song cycle exploring the American landscape. It would have been a bold and imaginative undertaking. The unfulfilled promise of that project looms like a roadside billboard along North Dixie Drive, the debut documentary portrait from Brooklyn filmmaker Eric Mahoney. This film explores the lives (intriguingly reminiscent of short story writer Raymond Carver) of a small community tied to this strip of the Northridge section of Dayton.

The film not only captures the people and the location, but it also serves as a sign of the times, a marker of the impact of the economic crisis that still grips the nation. Mahoney graciously answered a few questions in advance of his appearance at the Saturday, March 26 premiere of North Dixie Drive at the Neon (5:00 p.m.), which has already sold out [fortunately three additional shows have been added (April 1-3, 1:00 p.m. each day)].

What drew you to this particular story and this area/community?
I had been wanting to do some type of film project about this area for about 10 years now. I grew up close by, but really started spending some time at the traffic circle when I first met my (now) wife and her family [the Israeli body shop owners]. I was fascinated with how diverse and interesting all of their clientele were, and every time I would go to the shop someone (or something) unusual or interesting would happen. I could never really wrap my head around what it is that I wanted to do, but after attending Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School last summer, I got the idea that it would be best to simply do a portrait (or snapshot) of the inhabitants of that area. I didn’t have the time or money to do a long-term character study so I simply took who/what I found interesting, quickly filmed them and tied their stories together as a community portrait. [Eric Mahoney]

How receptive was everyone when you first approached them?
People were incredibly receptive. I think I only encountered one person who didn’t want to talk on camera. I was so grateful for everyone’s willingness to speak to me and tell their stories … they were all incredibly generous with their time. Not everyone understood (or got) why I was doing the project or why I found it interesting, but they were very helpful nonetheless. My in-laws [Zeke and Iris Levi] also helped to facilitate some of these interactions. Being long-standing business owners there, they know everyone and really helped facilitate some of the interviews that may have been otherwise difficult to obtain. [EM]

You have nailed a variety of socioeconomic issues here without putting an editorial stamp on them. How were you able to accomplish that?
First of all, thank you. It was my goal to be a fly on the wall and not to pass judgment on any of these people or what they are doing. Like I said, this is a just a snapshot of a community and that was my mantra while shooting and editing. It was not my job to weigh in or edit this to make people seem a certain way, I tried to convey the raw interviews as much as possible, let the subjects speak for themselves and the audience can decide what they think about the situation.[EM]

Could this be the start of a tour across America?
It’s interesting you ask that because recently a colleague of mine proposed the same long-term project to me based on this film. I’d love to, it’s ambitious, but certainly something I am considering. It’s a fascinating time in this country and small portraits from all over would be an interesting way to document it. [EM]

Response, so far, to the film seems strong, both for the screenings here and elsewhere. How will you continue to build momentum for the film?
I am in the midst of really trying to get this shown both here and abroad. My goal is to get the film some festival exposure, shop it around to several television outlets and look for distribution. With the advent of digital filmmaking, it is an incredibly competitive time to be pushing a no-budget documentary out there, but I believe in the project and from the feedback I have gotten so far, others do too. So right now I’m just setting up DIY screenings, submitting to festivals and trying to get some meetings on the books. We’ll see … (tt stern-enzi)