Freaks & Errors
Mutiny Motion Pictures
Director: Mark Cwiakala
Executive Producers: Jonathan Singer, Charles Cwiakala, Teresa Cwiakala, Stanislawa Zak.
Edited by Alex Cheng
Run time: 1:35:15
Available on Vimeo. Rental, $5.00. Download, $9.95.
Over the last couple of years my sons and I have been collecting stamps. Several accumulations came into our book store and I started playing around with the idea of selling them. Only problem? I didn’t know the first thing about them. Other than people collect them in albums with small stamp hinges. How can you sell something that you don’t know anything about? If there is one thing I learned in 25 years of selling used and rare books is that you cannot sell something you do not know, especially on the high end.
We have been organizing the accumulations that have come our way into collections. Identifying which nation used it. Identifying the varieties based on perforations, watermarks, and color. I have traded books for stamps and bought selectively at our local stamp club’s auction. I have a small philatelic reference library that I am building as I am able. And I’ve joined the American Philatelic Society.
In that process, I started watching everything I could find on stamp collecting on Youtube. Which, it turns out, is not very much. And what there is, is not very good. Stamp collectors have produced blogs, message boards and some videos. While they can write well most of the videos have been painful to watch. I searched in vain for something that looked halfway decent that I could share with friends on social media. To no avail.
The lack of a good documentary became so obvious that I even toyed with producing a film myself. It’s been a few years since I co-produced a pro-life film and so I contacted a couple of people who had experiencing directing documentaries and kicked the idea around very briefly.
Providentially it was around this time that I came across a project called Freaks and Errors. The producers released some very high quality shorts from the footage that they had shot. Two to three minute very well edited material that made stamp collecting look—for lack of a better term—edgy. And maybe a bit weird (hence the name of the film, which comes from a term describing misprinted stamps). We got excited about this project, watched and re-watched everything they had put out and had just about given up on the project ever being finished when Linn’s Stamp News announced on November 3rd that the film would debut at a stamp show in Monaco in December. What? It’s finally done? Yippee!
Imagine my boyish delight last week when the producer replied to an email that I had sent him about a year ago, completely out of the blue. With a link to the film on Vimeo! BEFORE the debut! Boo-yah!
So what can I say about this long awaited documentary? It’s a visually pleasing film to begin with. The b-roll of extreme close-ups of classic engraved stamps from around the world is likely to recruit new blood into the hobby by itself. Muy bonita. The interviews with some of the most important names in philately (stamp collecting) are fantastic. The Irwin Weinberg\Stuart Weitzman interviews about the Penny Magenta sales are the stuff of stamp collecting lore. The Bill Gross\Don Sundman interviews about the famous Z-grill\Inverted Jenny trade between these two giants in collecting and dealing were important to actually “document” the greatest trade in U.S. stamp collecting history. The fact that both of these deals have happened in the last seven years ought to encourage anyone who thinks this is a dying hobby. Far from it.
To my mind, the interviews in the first half of the film are the ones that are more crucial to the issue of whether or not stamp collecting is dead. It is not; even a brief glance at the number of stamp auctions running on eBay and other auction sites ought to be enough to silence that nonsense. Or a free tour at Mystic Stamp Company, which my sons and I had when we dropped in on Mystic after a spring hike last year as we passed through Camden, NY.
Collectable stamps are more accessible now than at any point in the history of stamp collecting. And more money is being made in a market that is more realistic than at any point in the history of philately. The common stuff is cheaper than it has ever been and the rare stuff is only getting pricier. The standard reference for the trade, the Scott Catalog, shows prices in decline in the 2018 edition on certain US stamps. While prices on Chinese stamps continue to climb.
The old timers are worried that stamp collecting is dying. It has been pointed out in recent publications that the issue is not collecting. It is the culture of stamp collecting that centered around stamp exhibitions, bourses (stamp shows featuring dealers) and local stamp clubs. Attendance at these events is dropping off as people take to the internet to buy and sell.
This culture is important, not due to anything pertaining to finance. It is important because of what collector\dealer Doug Weisz said in his interview. “I’m really concerned that without things like philately and euchre night on Tuesdays we are losing our culture in the United States and I don’t think you can replace that with Facebook or Twitter or any of that. I think that the lack of connection to each other is breeding fear and anger and misunderstanding. People don’t go to stamp shows to collect the things that you find there. They go to stamp shows to get together, to be social. I think that it gives everyone a familiarity, something in common, a jumping off point so that they can have a community. I think we need more community and I think philately is perfect.”
As someone who is concerned with community on many levels I agree wholeheartedly. Social media has created vast echo chambers where you and all of your friends can affirm each other’s politics, religion, and taste in food and vacations. If you happen to disagree on any of these things you can unfollow, unfriend or block any such unpleasantness out of your life for time and eternity. It takes a lot of chutzpah to dare to go up stream in the echo chamber. Anger, fear and misunderstanding are polite ways of putting it. Hatred, phobia and slander might be more accurate.
Social media is false community. In Christianity, we find real community in our local churches. We are forced to deal with people on varying levels of maturity with patience and love. In stamp collecting, you broaden out even further and have to do business with people who voted for Trump, Clinton or Daffy Duck. You learn to tolerate differing worldviews as people tolerate yours. And you find that people who differ from you can be truly interesting and valuable. In the course of life you find that while you are very different you can be friends. That is what true community in communities is all about. Our nation is a community of communities. Very different people thrown together like a vast pot of stew (as opposed to a melting pot) who get along for the sake of the community.
Social media is making enemies of us all. You might not dig stamp collecting, but you ought to find a euchre club or chess club or some grumpy old men meeting at McDonald’s at 7AM and learn to talk to people you don’t agree with—with the understanding that you’re going to do it again the same time next week. Better yet, go to church.
Now to get back to the film (you can tell I am a preacher). I liked the film. You might have guessed that by now. But as a matter of taste and preference, I do wonder what became of the interviews with Jackie Tohn? In other words, what happened to the edgy direction that this project appeared to start with? If there is one thing stamp collecting needs, it is a high profile actress\American Idol cameo. While she did get one audio clip in (perhaps for the social media and advertising mileage?), she never makes an actual appearance in the film in spite of her appearances in the promo trailers. While U.S. stamp collecting does not have an FDR anymore to promote it, a reasonably attractive celebrity would be helpful. Anything that dispels the image of the anti-social, rich, elderly relic with his tongs and magnifying glass bent over his huge stamp album would be a help. Unfortunately, as well done as this film is, it did little to demolish that stereotype but only reinforced it. I will not speculate as to the whys and wherefores on this decision other than to say that the whys and wherefores must exist. What they are would be an interesting interview on Stamp Show Here Today. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.
Oh, and by the way, what happened to the music? The early trailers\clips had funky cool music. Instead, we are treated to a weird, dissonant classical music sound track. What the heck?
Stamp collectors will love it. I like it. Perhaps investors will have their imaginations jogged. If you collect ANYTHING you will like this film on some level. And even if you don’t you will find it informative as a documentary. Now if we could just get them to do a documentary on book collecting…
If people will pay attention to what Cheryl Ganz (former National Postal Museum Chief Curator), Doug Weisz and Ian Gibson Smith said, they will get the thrill of stamp collecting. These interviews are worth the price of admission. The only negative is that the one market that everyone in philately says we should be reaching—the youth—was left on the cutting room floor.