SXSW Review: The World Before Your Feet


In many ways a two-man collaboration between filmmaker Jeremy Workman and subject Matt Green, The World Before Your Feet is an understated documentary that details Green’s efforts to walk every street in New York City’s five boroughs. If that sounds daunting, Green threw in parks, piers, trails, beaches, and more for good measure. Despite the production often being no more than Workman chasing Green from street to street, managing all sound and camera ops on his own, the film is magnificently shot and edited. A film that took more than six years to capture, and a story that’s been developing for over a decade come together in this documentary in one triumphant marvel of one man’s story being told not by his seeking, but because others find in it an importance that requires sharing.

The World Before Your Feet
Director: Jeremy Workman
Rated: TBD
Release Date: TBD

Green refuses to assign a reason to his motives for walking 8,500+ miles and counting, or as he says, “I don’t entirely know what the point is. I’m kind of learning that as I go along.” He attributes a puzzle to being the sum of its parts without the order of knowing how the parts come together. Enter Workman’s meticulous attention to detail and careful observation of countless hours and days spent with Green. Workman’s storytelling masterfully, and subtly builds a construct that relates the importance of truly immersing yourself in your experiences, the frailties and shortness of human existence and a desire to not squander any of it–a construct that each and every one of us can understand and connect to. The results are beautiful, inspiring, and invite audience members to examine what they take for granted in their daily existence.

At some point in the early 2000s Green, disillusioned with his existence at a desk as a city engineer,  decided to start walking. His first plan, to walk from Rockaway Beach, New York to Rockaway Beach, Oregon, taking him 3,100 miles and less than a year to complete. Too easy. So, in 2011, he began a new “project,” his New York City traverse. Along the way, Green takes his time, walking with intent and a keen observer’s eye turned to anything that elicits his attention. His knowledge of local history and flora are impressive. Equally impressive, his ability to speak to anyone; his enthusiasm for what he’s doing transcends divisions that might otherwise preclude him from speaking to any given person on the street.

In this universal ability to speak to strangers, there’s a kinship to much more famous storyteller and knower of people Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York. It’s in the way Green holds a constant easy smile, never waivers from his conviction in his purpose (as unknown as it is), and seeks out conversation and interaction with all who strike the fancy (which is most everyone).

Workman weaves Green’s quest to walk through New York with Green giving historical or contextual reference to the various environments he finds himself in with biographical details provided form interviews with Green’s parents, brother and former girlfriends. The results tell a typical story of discontent with the every day 9 to 5, and an entirely atypical response that finds Green living in whichever friend’s home will have him, or cat-sitting or house-sitting for strangers. The simple life is his preferred life. For substance, there’s always rice and canned beans. For beds, the generosity of others (a trick he learned on his cross-country route). Green speaks at length to the importance of teaching your mind to open itself to absorbing details of its surroundings.

At the same time, layers are pulled back from Green’s personal history that suggest what might have led him to live a life seeking constant experience and learning. Green’s own interview narrations seem to hint at confirming that near-death experiences for both himself and his brother may have set his course. He never says this, but the perpetual emphasis on living, on experiencing and on being more than the sum of your possession or your job seem to affirm the inferences and the construct are correct.

Is it an over response to the things that we all end up experiencing in life? Possibly, and Green readily acknowledges an awareness that others probably see his actions as crazy. His own perception disagrees, however, and he’s not really that concerned with labels from any other quarter than his own. He’s absorbed in his quest. It’s why its scope continues to expand, and also why his few serious girlfriends have fallen by the wayside, their knowledge of always being second-best to the act of walking a surety driving them apart as surely as the head of an axe splitting firewood.

The optimism present in the film is infectious. It’s easy to understand why Workman made this film and gave so much of himself in doing so. Shots of a scale model of New York City from a decades old-Worlds Fair serve as a map guiding the audience from one leg of the journey to the other. Audio tracks were often captured using nothing more than a wireless lav clipped to Green, but through post-production sound fantastic. And what animation was done to highlight narrative overlays is top-notch.

The World Before Your Feet is a poignant human story that doesn’t need to work to connect with audiences as a whole or on an individual level. You’ll get it as soon as you begin to watch it. But your understanding of the motivations, even if Green doesn’t get them, will grow as you progress through the film. As Green said after the screening, seeing himself onscreen is only strange for him, as it’s self-truth he’s not yet aware of, but he’s sure that everyone around him has always seen him this way and known these things about him. In this, he’s correct. While he may not understand his motivations, or have yet admitted them to himself, I think everyone experiencing his story will have strong suspicions of their own. 

Narratively, the story is also a history of New York City, which serves the film well. It strengthens its bones by taking a single human life and telling it through 400 years of a geographical society. As Green frequently ventures through cemeteries and even visits the graves of well-known individuals, the parallel between the two existences, and the emphasis of life being short are driven home to great effect.

Green spends his non-walking hours researching things he encounters while walking, and then blogging about them and the thousands of pictures he captures.