Hot Docs 2024: 'Secret Mall Apartment' Turns a Childlike Fantasy into a Commentary on Capitalism

Directed by Jeremy Workman

Photo: Michael Townshend

BY Alex HudsonPublished Apr 25, 2024


"People live in a secret apartment in the mall" is a perfect elevator pitch — both a potent metaphor for the struggle of living under capitalism and something one might fantasize about as a child.

Secret Mall Apartment mostly lives up to that promise, chronicling the hijinks of eight Rhode Island artists who discovered a hidden area of the Providence Place mall and made it their own for four years in the early '00s.

Describing it as an "apartment" is perhaps a bit of a stretch. The area is essentially an alcove — a gap between walls created by the mall's unusual shape. It doesn't have windows, a washroom, electricity, running water or heating — and while the people who camp out there sometimes crash on the couch, it's more of a clubhouse than an actual apartment. It looks distinctly like a prison, and there doesn't seem to be much to do there except for sit around and play PlayStation (thanks to an extremely long extension cord).

Rather, their occupation is part political protest, part art project. These squatters had been based out of a warehouse known as Fort Thunder, a hub of a local music scene associated with noise rock duo Lightning Bolt (whose drummer, Brian Chippendale, appears here as an interview subject). Gentrification brought about by the mall resulted in this home base being knocked down in 2001.

For the artists, and especially ringleader Michael (who is an art teacher), turning the mall that displaced them into a semi-functional home is an art installation. This provides interesting opportunities to discuss the always-interesting question of what "art" means, as Michael's present-day girlfriend and his brother admit they don't see how moving a couch into an empty alcove in a mall counts as art. The doc subjects are keenly aware of the symbolic significance of what they're doing — which is why they filmed the whole project using crappy point-and-shoot digital cameras from the era, and why they speak about "the space" in such lofty terms. Y'know the way art school students talk about "recontextualizing and engaging with the space" or whatever.

Secret Mall Apartment suffers from some pacing issues, as director Jeremy Workman doesn't quite seem to have figured out in which order to lay out the different parts of the story. The story bounces slightly awkwardly between chronicling their creation of the apartment, commenting on the gentrification of Providence, and digging into Michael's personal life and other art projects. The film picks up steam by the midway point, once the personalities have finally been introduced and the stakes established. I'm not quite sure how Workman could have done it better — but waiting until the final 15 minutes to explore the breakdown of a marriage between two of the principal figures felt too late.

Perhaps predictably, having a secret apartment in a shopping mall is cooler in practice than in theory. Still, there's an outrageous audacity to the project that makes it admirable in an inane sort of way — as well as a final intertitle that provides a great thematic kicker. If people want to live in an unoccupied area between the walls of a mall, why not just let them?

Hot Docs 2024 takes place from Apr 25 to May 5 in Toronto. Find details, including information about tickets, at the festival's website.

(Submarine Entertainment)

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