Filmmaker John Jeffcoat's latest feature takes an unanticipated, endearing and eclectic look at all that is Bingo - from Welfare recipients to drag queens and the catholic church - all at their gaudy, bawdy and grandly humorous best. The film reveals all that lies below the gloss of American kitsch: an unexpected subculture of eccentric and tightly knit people for whom hope truly springs eternal. This isn't your grandmother's bingo anymore; this film plays it hand like an anthem to hope, devotion and recently hip addiction. As Market shares for docs dry up, Bingo! is one of the few sure-to-be hits that can guarantee and audience: there are 1.2 billion visits to Bingo halls each year worldwide, versus only 964.2 million visits to movie theatres. Contact John Jeffcoat: 206-285-8024.
Uncle Willy, a portly man wearing a tight custom T-shirt that reads "Uncle Willy Loves Al Hirt," is trying to explain the appeal of Bingo. He raves about the charge of the gamble, the excitement, the thrill of victory.
Meanwhile, on the Ninth Annual World Championship Bingo Cruise - during which a massive ocean liner transports thousands of truly Bingo-addled citizens (many seniors) to the Virgin Islands, where they can sit in a gaudy onboard casino with no direct sunlight and keep playing Bingo - a number of late-middle-age ladies brag about meeting one another over cards and daubers, calling Bingo "a social event. It's like our family. You hope you win, but you've got to see your family."
Over in the south of Ireland, a decrepit movie theater has been converted to house all the local Bingo players, while here in Seattle, a man wins a makeover at Gay Bingo, emerging from behind the big board as a statuesque glamour puss while a room full of anxious players perfunctorily applaud. What they really want is for the next game to start.
Seattle filmmaker John Jeffcoat has shot over 40 hours of footage like this - Bingo all around the world, in Seattle, New York, Boston, Texas, England, Ireland, Scotland, and the Caribbean. Along with his devoted producer Deryn Williams, Jeffcoat has begun to whittle the stockpile down into a feature-length documentary, tentatively titled, intriguingly enough, Bingo! The Documentary. Originally intended as a 15 or 20 minute short, the film soon took on radically larger proportions as Jeffcoat began to discover the magnitude of the Bingo phenomenon.
It's a billion-dollar industry," he told me, over the clank of coffee cups at Vivace. "There's more visits to Bingo halls in a year than movie theaters, bowling alleys, or rock concertsÉ I notice that no one stops to really think about the tremendous subculture that exists."
And so, armed with a battery of grants - from King County, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle Arts Commission, Washington State Humanities, as well as untold in-kind donations - Jeffcoat and Williams have birthed a monstrous exploration of the most widely sanctioned form of gambling in the known world. It promises to be one of the most interesting - and judging from some of the footage - most assured features to emerge from a Seattle filmmaker in recent memory.
"It's a legal form of gambling that's condoned by the catholic church and that's very strange," Jeffcoat reckons. "No one wants to say anything because it's a lot of bluehaired old ladies - that's the stereotype - playing this game, which is gambling, but its not a big deal. But if it starts to become something that attracts younger generations - like in New York they have Bingo for booze, and they give away margaritas, and now you have these Bingo cruises. Now there are satellite link-up Bingo's too, with jackpots worth millions of dollars. And internet Bingo, you can sit and play it in your home - you wonder if it does click with a younger generation if lawmakers will see it as more of a threat. But now the big threat is Indian reservations offering high-stakes Bingo and putting charitable Bingo's out of commission. They're offering better buy-ins, better facilities, better prizes, and there's no regulation."
Tall, lean, and bearded, Jeffcoat speaks with a mildly bewildered, ultimately empathetic interest about the Bingoholics he's committed to camera thus far, seeking out the humanity underneath the rabid play and good luck trinkets. It isn't always pretty.
A lot of people who are disabled got hooked on it," Jeffcoat learned. "They played Bingo at the rehabilitation facilities, and they got hooked. Then there are Bingo halls that are cheaper to go to that cater to a working class group, a lot of whom are on welfare. There was one woman we talked to who said the first of the month is 'when the eagle shits.' The Bingo halls are packed then because everyone gets their checks. Part of the film is called ''welfare Bingo,'' it'' sort of the dark side of Bingo: people going hoping to take the 20 bucks they have and come out with a couple hundred to pay off the bills or the utilities that month, and unfortunately that doesn't always happen. There's a lot of people who shouldn't be playing."
It's tempting to compare independent filmmaking to Bingo - one imagines a large room filled with social malcontents, hunched over, smoking, hustling for the chance to leap up, shouting - but ultimately, the comparison is forced. Still, comparing Bingo! The Documentary to Bingo is almost mandatory, since its Bingo that will help the filmmakers generate finishing funds in time. In the works now are Bingo! Nights at local parlors, and in late March, their own fund-raising cruise. Jeffcoat and Williams hope to have their film finished in time for the May deadline for the 1998 Seattle International Film Festival. Watch the Stranger for updates. * * *
The Stranger is a local publication in Seattle.
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