"Initially it started out as a five-month project, just to keep myself in filmmaking while I worked on my screenplays," says John Jeffcoat about his movie Bingo: The Documentary. "It was going to be a 15-minute short shot on 16mm, thanks to a grant from the King County Arts Commission."
That was nearly five years ago. Since then, he found a producer (Deryn Williams) to help with production duties, married her, and had a baby. Meanwhile, the more the pair learned about bingo culture, the bigger the project became. It grew from a short film, to an hour-long documentary made on film, to -- as digital video technology swept the nation -- a documentary that mixes film and digital video, all edited on a home computer. To finance this endeavor, Jeffcoat signed up for every credit card he could (before shooting his credit to hell), and Williams helped out by collecting on a couple of lawsuits (don't ask) and pawning the wedding ring from her first marriage.
Making a film is always a gamble -- the more you invest, the more you stand to lose -- but with Bingo: The Documentary, it looks like the gamble is going to pay off. The movie is a fun and informative look at this massive, yet strangely invisible, subculture. (According to one source, bingo is a $6-billion-a-year industry in North America alone; more people go to bingo halls than movie theaters.) The bingo parlor is a world unto itself where people go to socialize and gamble, or just to gamble; where ritual and superstition are just as important as luck.
The stereotypical bingo player is an elderly woman who smokes, and there's a reason for that -- a lot of bingo players are elderly women who smoke. There are also recovering addicts and welfare recipients (one man says you should hit the bingo halls near the end of the month, because welfare checks are delivered at the beginning of the month, and the halls fill up with people who have a little extra cash to spend). Bingo players learn a skill, and while it might not be a useful skill, they nevertheless can recognize numbers quickly, see bingo patterns right away, and play upwards of 40 cards at a time. Damn!
"You only have to win once and you're hooked," says one interviewee, and what everybody talks about is that rush you get when you are just one number away from a bingo. They compare it to fishing, jumping off a bridge tied to a bungee cord, or even having an orgasm. Williams says non-bingo players can't understand this, so she has demanded that every screening of the film at the Little Theatre be preceded by an actual bingo game (included in the price of admission), in which players can win anything from a $50 bottle of port and Godiva chocolates to T-shirts and copies of the video.
Like bowling, bingo has a '50s vibe to it; unlike bowling, bingo hasn't quite broken into the youth market. It keeps threatening to, though. The movie looks at relatively young upstarts like Seattle's Gay Bingo and a bar in New York where people play for drinks, while experts keep saying how it's just about to become popular with the kids. We'll see. Meanwhile, bingo remains a global phenomenon, and in Bingo Jeffcoat captures everything from the enormous British bingo palaces to the Carnival Cruise Bingo Ship. He also captures the loneliness of some of these bingo addicts and the feeling of security they get from being in a place where they feel they belong, not to mention the social (the gossip and hanging out) and antisocial (the quiet intensity of the players as they concentrate) aspects of the game.
The movie itself has found success in the lonely world of documentary films. It's been screened in several name festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival; Matt Groening gave it a top prize when he was judging Portland's Northwest Film & Video Festival; and they just found out that their website www.bingothedocumentary.com> (which includes a bingo search engine to help you find the closest bingo parlor to your house, among other goodies) is a finalist in the South by Southwest off-shoot, the SXSW Multimedia Festival. Right now they're looking for television deals both in this country and abroad. Every sale is a rush, an orgasm, and they're on the brink of several more. All it takes is one win, one success, and you're hooked for life. Or at least until the next obsession comes along.