Anything to Declare, Mr. Dennis?
Think of America these days and what often comes to mind is not wide-open spaces or magnificent music and movies but enraged people shouting at each other.
Drama teacher Dennis Elkins is concerned he might be drifting towards membership of this intolerant angry old white guy club. He acknowledges how, having had little contact with people of colour, he feels more comfortable encountering them on the pages of National Geographic and worries if his bathing in the Ganges River could be considered cultural appropriation. A bereavement and a sense of alienation from his own country after the election of Donald Trump prompts Elkins to a dramatic change of lifestyle in the form of a lengthy visit to India.
Anything to Declare, Mr. Dennis? Does just what it says in the title: gives Elkins the chance to set out his opinions on the state of his country and describe his personal journey of discovery. It is extremely well-structured with the opening sequences a blur of rushed travel incidents before the pace slows to allow the motivation behind his journey to become apparent. There is a sense any research has been limited—a comparison of the different generations that make up American and Indian cultures. In the main, Elkins’s conclusions are drawn from his personal experience—a horror at the sheer number of guns visible in both countries and an appreciation of the respectful way he was treated during his travels.
Elkins’s personality is flirtatious and, although he acknowledges having little knowledge of his ancestry, he is coy about his personal life—mention is made of his son but not a partner. Elkins’s criticism of his countrymen, like his personality, is perceptive but gentle—white people being a bland ingredient unless mixed with something of stronger flavour.
Director Karla Knudsen emulates the delirious sense of confusion that comes from lengthy travel. The film is shot as on a camera phone with a rectangular shape in the centre of the screen occasionally surrounded by graphics. In the style of a travel documentary an occasional ‘Tips for travellers’ icon pops up to allow Elkins to share his rather personal recommendations.
Anything to Declare, Mr. Dennis? is a welcome relief from the intensity of debate about modern American life. As one might expect from a narrator who seems able to see the brighter side of life, it even ends on an optimistic note.
Reviewer: David Cunningham