Shedding light on a quirky 2007 story that made national headlines, Secret Mall Apartment takes us deep into the bowels of the Providence Place Mall, centerpiece of the renaissance of Rhode Island’s capital city developed under convict mayor Buddy Cianci. (As it happens, a few months before the discovery of the secret mall apartment, I had been right above it seeing Cherry Arnold’s Buddy, an insightful film about the mayor and his transformation of Providence, at the mall’s Showcase Cinemas, but that is another story.) Apartment residents had the advantage of private access to the theater anytime they wished.

In Secret Mall Apartment, however, the goal is a form of artistic resistance wherein RISD-trained artist Michael Townsend, his wife Adriana, and friends seeing how long they could stay. The mall and the transformation of Providence was incredibly disruptive, kicking artists out of exciting life, work, and exhibition spaces a few miles away with the goal of clearing the old mill district for strip malls and power centers. It was such a large project it led to the re-routing of river and train tracks. This created some exciting opportunities for artists to make work that pushed against dominant power structures, including in a hidden creek where Townsend created a profound, haunting tunnel of bodies that was only on view to those who knew the way in.

Although I don’t know if Gary Burns’ 2000 comedy Waydowntown made it to any of the movie theaters in the Providence market, the group seems influenced, initially, by a similar idea present in that movie: how long can you stay indoors at the mall? Inspired by a series of ads that touted the wonder of a gleaming superstructure and all its amenities, Adriana challenges the group to live there, and some do try spending the night under the radar of security. The irony gleaned from this film’s coda is that Providence Place, like other malls around the country, is considering allocating space to (legal) apartments in the future, a world that Waydowntown documents in Calgary, Alberta’s Plus 15 network of buildings. 

While the film brings about complex issues that cities like White Plains and Buffalo are directly dealing with––in particular unfriendly, big-box malls in downtown centers designed to bring in suburban traffic––the heart of the film lies with the group of bandits and creatives who made an unused 700-foot square space between two wings of the mall a makeshift home. Reclaiming the space, they add a couch, a table, and a video game system, and start inviting a select group of artists and friends over. Eventually, in their largest heist ever, they import bricks slowly to build a wall that separates the space and ultimately dupes mall security for years with a locked door. 

Framed by interviews with those who visited and / or helped construct the space, Secret Mall Apartment is largely possible because, like many artists, Townsend kept a meticulous video diary on a small point-and-shoot camera that he could hide in a box of mints while walking around the mall. They document all aspects of their experience, including his eventual fallout with Adriana, who is tired of glamping out at the mall and wants to return to a house they’re renovating.

Like director Jeremy Workman’s previous features The World Before Your Feet and Lilly Topples the World, Secret Mall Apartment is an intimate portrait of those navigating their worlds through artistic interventions. In a few passages that feel like they are from a different film, we follow Townsend’s work as a tape artist, bringing joy to kids at a local hospital and comfort to New York and Oklahoma City in the wake of terrorist attacks.

The film is indeed most interesting when focused on the four years Townsend and collaborators spent in the mall, literally inserting themselves in the belly of the beast that changed their city. It’s a fascinating story rife with political and social commentary that pushes beyond the headlines. Prior to the film, not much was known about the collaborators (Townsend was ultimately sentenced to probation and given a lifetime ban from the mall) and the film sheds light on four years of history and artistic practice.

Secret Mall Apartment premiered at SXSW 2024.

Grade: B

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