Ralph Arlyck is "Following Sean"by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
In 1969, documantarian Ralph Arlyck caused controversy with a short film about a 4-year-old boy who said he smoked pot. Critics lauded the film as a portrait of the San Francisco hippie scene. But it also brought a deluge of criticism about a society out of control. Thirty-five years later, Arlyck returned to find out what had happened to the boy. Arlyck will present the resulting film, "Following Sean," in Minneapolis this weekend.
St. Paul, Minn. — In 1969, Ralph Arlyck lived in the Haight Ashbury area of San Francisco. It was the center of hippie culture, but Arlyck says he was there because he could get an apartment for $50 a month.
"I was living on the bottom floor of a three-story building, and there was this incredible family that was living on the upper floor. It was a standard crash pad, and one of the people in the crash pad was this wonderful little 4-year-old boy," Arlyck recalls.
The boy was Sean Farrell, a precocious and talkative guy, who regularly ran barefoot and alone on the streets of Haight Ashbury. Arlyck needed a subject for a film class assignment to interview someone.
"I had no idea what he would say," says Arlyck now.
The film shows Sean propped on a big couch, playing with his feet, as he chats with Arlyck. They talk about the days of the week, and how bones keep your body from collapsing -- typical 4-year-old stuff. Then the conversation takes a strange turn.
"Do you turn on?" Arlyck asks the little boy.
"No," he replies. He pauses, then smiles broadly. "I smoke grass!" he lisps slightly.
"Do you? What's it like?" Arlyck asks.
"If you got any grass, I'll show you. I'll eat it!"
"Do you eat it?"
"I eat it and smoke it!" Sean says.
Arlyck remembers how he felt when he heard Sean's words.
"When he said these kind of outrageous things, it was one of those 'Wow,' sort of a kind of a gift you are given as a filmmaker, when your subject comes though with something you know is going to be provocative and interesting to your audience," he says.
When asked if he thought of calling child protection, Arlyck laughs and says not to forget it was a different time and a different place. He says people in the Haight didn't get too excited about this kind of thing. Arlyck's finished 14-minute film, simply called "Sean," caught a great deal of attention. There was the good stuff -- film festival appearances, a screening at the White House, and a letter of congratulations from his hero, Francois Truffaut.
But when the film hit the movie theaters, there was another reaction. In his new documentary, Arlyck recalls what happened.
"Sean turned out to be the perfect foil for a decade seen as infantile -- lots of talk about how the Haight and this kid were exactly what was wrong about America. Canaries in the mineshaft. This little boy that I was so fond of, and his whole family, had become a symbol, and it was my fault."
Arlyck moved to the East Coast soon after. He always meant to check in with Sean and his family, but it took the excitement and nostalgia of the 25th anniversary of Woodstock to get him to track down Sean again.
Returning to San Francisco, Arlyck found a 39-year-old union electrician who enjoys target sports. Speaking on an archery range, Sean Farrell was apparently happy with his life, and his childhood.
"It seemed to me like we were always a happy, normal family," Farrell says. "Now whether that's true or not, I can't really say."
Arlyck began to explore that. He talked to Sean, and his father John, who is still committed to his 1960s ideals of personal freedom. He met Sean's mother Susie, and his grandmother, Hon Brown, an old-school Bay area communist.
Arlyck found that while life wasn't perfect for Sean and his family, by and large they were doing well.
"At some point, the film began to change and was about more than just finding this kid, but sort of some important strains underneath that," he says. Arlyck went back and considered what had happened to his own family -- his parents, the woman he met and married around the time he met Sean. Arlyck says he ended up making a film about families, work and freedom. He says Sean has turned out remarkably well.
"The free environments in which he grew up, I believe, were good for him," he says.
Arlyck stresses he doesn't believe that would be true of everyone.
Arlyck will introduce the film Friday evening at the Bell Auditorium in Minneapolis.
- Morning Edition, 03/23/2006, 6:50 a.m.