If you’re like me, you can let down your guard at times. Take, for example, when I am visiting my wife’s family in Hawaii. We often go to the Ala Moana Mall, a vast sprawl of shopping decadence, and I have great time there. I become oblivious to the manic push of capitalism and the cynical regeneration of new ways to buy things. Insidiously, the comfort of eating a Cinnabon dulls my keener political senses. (I might add that the Ala Moana Mall is particularly nice, with tropical trees and a top-notch Japanese food court.)

Image from the documentary MEGAMALL

So, thank God for people like Vera Aronow, Sarah Mondale and Roger Grange, who keep us on our toes. They are the co-directors of MEGAMALL, a documentary that will be screening at the Stranger than Fiction series at the IFC Center in Manhattan this Tuesday (May 24, 2011). The film follows the creation of a giant mall in their native Rockland County (a short drive from New York City), and shows how their community was deceived, sidestepped and bought out by mall developers.

But the film is not entirely bleak. There are many people in the community who fought back. In fact, in making the film, Aronow, Mondale and Grange captured everything that’s wrong about a mall coming to your town, and transformed it into a film that could be used to stop future mall developers. So, props to them.

I conducted this interview with the directors over email. You’ll find that these guys have spent a lot of time thinking about the subject, and they have a nuanced understanding of the mall industry. Clearly, they have not been blinded by those shiny H&M window displays or the gooeyness of the unholy Cinnabon.

How did you all get started on the film? And why did it take so long to complete? The main events covered in the film happened years ago.

ARONOW We started shooting in 1996, when [mall developer] Pyramid put in their request to make this the biggest, or second biggest, mall in the country and the huge, emotional town meetings took place in reaction to that. We kept following the twists and turns in the story through 2002, when the public vote was held on Pyramid’s request to expand into the empty space they had built on the 3rd and 4th floors of the mall. That’s 7 years. After that, it took us a long time to figure out the story and edit because for the most part, it was extremely difficult to raise funds and as a result, we were doing the work in our spare time.

MONDALE: We read about the proposed mall in the New York Times in the early ’90s and then in 1996 when the controversy was heating up, I went to a very emotional meeting at a local high school where people were almost coming to blows over this. Vera and Roger and I are friends and fellow Rockland County filmmakers. We discussed the idea of making a film together about this great story that was unfolding right in our backyards, literally 1 mile from our homes in Nyack. Roger and I started going out to meetings at night and Vera started editing the footage and that’s how we got started. It took ten years to make because, as Vera says, it was very difficult to raise money for this project, so as the story became more and more complex, working on MEGAMALL became a passion for us that we felt compelled to bring to a close. Making these kinds of films, shot over time, are the most interesting because they allow people to actually see how the effects play out, but they are also the hardest to make.

Has the film been used by grassroots groups to stop malls from happening in other communities?

ARONOW: Don’t know of specific battles where it has been used but it is being used for education and teaching students and citizens of all ages about the planning process and sensitizing them to the fact that our built environment matters. What we choose to build says a lot about who we are, our values as a community, and as a country. The film also shows people speaking up about what is built. Hopefully, this will help protect communities from sprawl in the future.

MONDALE: We have had screening requests from places where malls are being proposed and built, and we hope MEGAMALL will serve as a cautionary tale to educate people in other communities.

Have any of you ever enjoyed the admittedly dreadful but still pleasurably ironic (and convenient) experience of shopping in a mall? Another way to ask this is: Are all malls all bad?

ARONOW: We’ve certainly all shopped in malls. And there are malls that I think are better designed than this one. But, for me the film is not so much about the experience of shopping at a mall as the fact that authentic towns and cities are great places, where people from all walks of life can associate with each other. America’s towns and cities are vulnerable and need to be protected from sprawl.

MONDALE: DITTO. We read books about the psychological experience of shopping at malls but that’s really not what this film is about. It’s sad that in many places in America, people like us have no choice about where to shop. Around here, if you want a coat or a pair of shoes, the mall is your only choice. The downtowns fill another purpose (niche marketing, specialty shops and places to eat.)

GRANGE: Of course I have shopped in many malls. I don’t feel particularly comfortable in them as I don’t find the atmosphere all that inviting. Shopping in general does not excite me so I don’t take part in the national pastime of wandering around shopping aimlessly. I go and get what I need and leave! I would not say that all malls are bad. What I find “bad” about malls in general is that they have corporatized most retail business in the country and much of the world. This has taken money out of the pockets of small-business people and put it in the pockets of large national and international stores. It has made certain types of retail businesses disappear from our landscape. So we have no choice but to shop in malls even if we would prefer to go to a Mom and Pop store.

How did [community activist] Shirley Lasker respond to the film, and what sort of political work is she engaged in now, if any?

ARONOW: Shirley Lasker is still a member of the Clarkstown Town Board and is still active on environmental issues. She loves the film and has come to many screenings and participated in Q&A sessions. She said that many people are surprised to learn about how she got started in politics because now she has been on the board for almost 10 years.

MONDALE: Shirley is very involved in environmental causes and planning. She has worked to get new people on the town planning board. She’s also worked on getting funds to protect open space and revitalize main streets in the various downtowns of Rockland County.

How did Pyramid respond to the film?

GRANGE: Prior to the 2002 vote on the mall expansion issue, Pyramid was worried about the impact the film would have on the outcome of the vote. They called to ask when the film would be released. Currently, they have not responded publicly or privately in any way.

What would you say is the current state of malls in America?

MONDALE: We have read that malls have been hard hit nationwide; developers are having trouble financing new projects and finding tenants for their existing malls. Malls are also taking a hit due to the growing popularity of online shopping. In the future, the country is going to have to deal with a lot of hulking “dead” malls alongside highway interchanges that sprouted in the 80s and 90s. This is a good project for architecture and planning classes — some have proposed turning them into farmers markets and other creative reuses. James Howard Kunstler predicted that once we run out of cheap gasoline, our country’s whole “suburban utopia”, including malls, will no longer be affordable and is bound to collapse.

GRANGE: I don’t think malls are going away. In the last two weeks, the owner of Rockland’s original mall, the Nanuet Mall, announced plans to demolish most of that mall and then to rebuild it — in direct competition with Pyramid’s Palisades Center. What they have in mind is to differentiate the new reincarnation of the Nanuet Mall from Palisades, and perhaps to put that new glitter effect onto their property.

In addition, last week, New Jersey Governor Christie announced a $200 million investment of taxpayer funds into the mothballed Xanadu project in the Meadowlands. In the news conference announcing this infusion and revival of the project, plans for a 7.5 MILLION SQ. FT. behemoth of a mall were also discussed. This is a VERY large project, and since it sits on New Jersey state-owned land, the Gov. apparently felt it necessary to make sure something happens with this bizarre structure.

This announcement brings forth my main objections to mall development:

In our so-called “free market” economy, why on earth would we want to put taxpayer money into a privately owned business which should be able to stand on its own two feet? To be fair, Christie stated that he expects the taxpayers to receive some of the profits of the venture, and that he did it to make sure something good happens with the building which already exists.

However, this type of government intervention is “picking winners and losers,” something most free market economists, and politicians like Christie, do not think is a good idea.

A great deal of the business of mall development is simply about real estate transactions, loans, mortgages, refinancing and the like. Do we really NEED 7.5 million sq. ft. of new shopping facilities? Where are all the shoppers going to come from? ANSWER: Probably from other malls. So, to serve the interests of ONE, CHOSEN mall developer, and in the name of economic development and job creation, the state of New Jersey is going to assist a private developer in making a fast buck with an enormous real estate transaction, actually a series of transactions. That developer will make a lot of money, and a whole bunch of older malls and shopping centers in the area will experience reduced business and job losses as a result.

Is this REALLY economic development? I don’t think so.

There is nothing new about this scenario, except that malls and associated real estate deals become ever larger. There is no real new thinking going on regarding long-term job creation and sustainable NEW economic development.

The current state of malls in America? Corporate welfare for people and companies who don’t need it. But as long as governments — state, county, and local — as well as planning boards, etc., keep allowing land to be developed in this way, developers will continue to build them, making small conceptual changes in order to stay “fresh” and exciting, because it is what they know how to do and the easiest way for them to make a lot of money.

MEGAMALL screens in New York City’s IFC Center on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 as part of the ongoing documentary series Stranger than Fiction.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen