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Imagine a World If You Will….A Review of Rocaterrania

Jun 25th, 2012 | By | Category: Entertainment

Renaldo Kuhler IllustratingGreensboro is chock-full of filmmakers – some extraordinarily talented, some who are up-and-coming, and some who are still in the learning process.  Brett Ingram falls squarely into the first category. His credentials are beyond impressive: Filmmaking teacher at UNC-G. First documentary feature, Monster Road, earned sixteen awards, including Best Documentary at Slamdance Film Festival. Guggenheim Fellowship winner. Former journalist, physics teacher and electrical engineer on the Space Shuttle Main Engine Program. And a really, REALLY nice person to boot.

Brett spent ten years making a documentary that I personally list among my favorites in that genre (also my favorite genre of film) called Rocaterrania, which screened at The Creative Center on June 20. Rocaterrania profiles Renaldo Kuhler, the former science illustrator for the North Carolina Museum of Natural History.  Brett encountered Kuhler on a bus in Raleigh after Brett’s car broke down. He noticed how Kuhler was oddly dressed, and that he was ranting about the public transportation system. Fast forward two years later. Brett took a job with the NC Museum of Natural History and was introduced to Renaldo Kuhler. Remembering him from the bus two years prior, he befriended Kuhler and soon discovered a world that Kuhler had hidden from the world – the world of Rocaterrania. Rocaterrania is a country that exists only in Kuhler’s mind, but comes to life in staggering detail in his illustrations – thousands of them. Residents, architecture, clothing, objects, even its own language and alphabet.

Rocaterrania IllustrationThe film begins with Kuhler ranting about litter in the public parks in Raleigh. Then we begin to see his scientific illustrations, under a magnifying glass, with their minute and stunning detail. Kuhler shows Ingram a tiny female shrew’s skull, which he must draw for the Museum.  He looks through a microscope and draws, with exact precision.  Kuhler relates that the NC Museum of Natural History hired him without an interview based solely on his illustration. It reminds one of the artists who paint on the head of a pin. But Brett says Kuhler doesn’t like to be called an artist – he is an illustrator.

Kuhler’s father, Otto Kuhler, was a famous train designer during the time when trains were competing against airlines for customers, and train companies wanted a more streamlined, modern look.  In the elder Kuhler’s design, a great deal of Art Deco influence shows through.  Renaldo Kuhler revealed that his father was away from home for long periods of time, his mother was cold and ruthless, and he suffered a painful childhood and young adulthood. Never fitting in, he was picked on mercilessly by classmates in school and college.  Growing up in Colorado in the 1950s, he was ostracized for not conforming. But no matter what cruelties he suffered from parents or classmates, his determination not to conform was solid as granite. And his escape was Rocaterrania.

Rocaterrania illustrationRocaterrania is said to be located on the New York/Canadian border, a separate country from the United States. Kuhler and his family lived in Rockland County, New York, and the name Rocaterrania is derived from that – Rock Land – rock terrain – Rocaterrania. Kuhler was deeply fascinated by Russian history during his college years, and modeled Rocaterrania after Russia and Eastern European countries. Kuhler has drawn citizen after citizen of this country; developed a language, an alphabet and a font, (which was used in the title sequence of Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man); developed a history, a governmental structure, and has developed and depicted all of this through his artwork.  His art ranges from landscapes to incredibly ornate architecture to his most prolific subject, people and costuming.

Even though the film clocks in at just under 80 minutes, the sheer volume of art, letters, alphabet, history, all written, drawn and painted by Kuhler is mind-boggling.  I felt on my first viewing of this film as though Kuhler might have a form of graphomania, a condition I have never seen except in Crumb, where underground comic artist Robert Crumb’s brother Charles displays this in a tragic downward spiral.

Thankfully, no downward spiral for Kuhler, though. Brett says that Kuhler is an incredibly kind and generous man, yet cantankerous at the same time. He’s not insane (as many people have assumed) and is, in fact, brilliant with a near photographic memory. And as real as Rocaterrania seems through Kuhler’s illustrations and detailed history, he is quite cognizant that Rocaterrania exists only in his own mind. Brett tells that it took him years to get Kuhler to fully open this world up to him, and he filmed nearly 100 hours of footage for Rocaterrania. Afterward, he gave Brett all his illustrations of Rocaterrania, which Kuhler’s parents at one time encouraged him to destroy. Brett has them catalogued safely after they were stored in a closet for 60 years. And Kuhler still lives in his tiny apartment that he rented in 1969 when he came to North Carolina, which Brett says is like stepping back in time. Although he is not poor, he refuses to move, and continues to refuse conformity to societal norms, living on his own terms at 82 years old.

Brett and RenaldoThe audience at the screening asked Brett what would be done with the illustrations – would they be sold, couldn’t he make a profit for Kuhler or himself, what about a coffee table book? Kuhler wants none of that – no profit from this work, no sale of prints of his work. The illustrations have been displayed and exhibited, but not for monetary gain and not frequently. This seemed to puzzle many in the audience, but what made Kuhler’s intent crystal clear to me was a statement he said in the film, speaking about America’s perpetual quest for money, power and status: “The higher you go in life, the less free you are.”

Rocaterrania is available through Brett Ingram’s website, www.brettingram.org, and is truly a feast for the senses.

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