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Wednesday, February 12,2014

BIFF: Smaller than life

‘Tiny’ breaks out of the fourth wall in talks about making a home

By Elizabeth Miller
Kevin Hoth
Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller install the roof trim on their Tiny House.

“Tiny houses have gotten a lot of media coverage and a lot of that has been based around how crazy and how extreme they are, or oh that’s amazing, but I could never do that, and I think in some ways that kind of misses the point,” says Merete Mueller, co-director of the film Tiny: A Story About Living Small. “In our film, we really tried to make the story not so much about how extreme tiny houses are or really saying that everybody should downsize to that extent, but using it as a way to highlight the questions that we could all ask and all apply to how we live, no matter the square footage — just questions of quality over quantity and how much is enough, how much we really need and whether the stuff we own is actually improving our quality of life or if it’s actually becoming sort of like a hindrance to quality of life.”

documents Christopher Smith’s search for a home, a path that leads him to building a 124-square-foot tiny house for property he’d purchased in the Colorado mountains near Hartsell, which has since been relocated back to Boulder, where he now lives. Smith, also co-director for the film, expected to start construction in May and be moved in by October of the same year, and instead saw the process, one he was largely determined to complete on his own, taking a year.

“I pictured it being like, it’s probably not that much more than a TuffShed with insulation, how much harder can it be?” he says, and laughs. “So that’s sort of where my logic went wrong pretty early on. … I really tried to learn every step as we went along, and each step felt just as difficult as the previous one. So I’d finish the foundation and then I’d be like, OK, now I have to figure out how to frame a wall.”

He saw the process from the start as a metaphor for searching for and trying to create a home, whether that’s literal or not. In Mueller’s case, watching Smith, who she was then dating, building the tiny house meant watching him take a giant leap after a huge dream, and it led her to go after the image of a possible home that had haunted her — moving to Brooklyn, which she did, shortly after Smith finished the house.

Smith and Mueller combined their backgrounds in film and writing, respectively, to create a film that explores the tiny house movement and the argument that if your living space is small, you tend to live much larger — the whole world becomes your living room, one advocate argues — and even the potential for small houses as affordable housing options, particularly when it comes to infill development in already established cities (a particularly interesting option in a town like Boulder).

“I would hope that the film inspires people to consider the idea of home and where it is that they feel at home, and what makes a home,” Mueller says. “I think that part of it is location. A lot of it is people, relationships and experiences, and it’s not so much about physical stuff in a house necessarily, although that can be part of it, too.”

“If you construct tiny houses, they’re houses stripped down to the most basic elements. It’s sort of a reductionist approach then to learning what makes a home,” Smith says. “Because if you can remove all these elements that we have in houses, like square footage or lots of bedrooms or whatever, and it still feels like a home, then, you can maybe put your finger on it a little bit better.”

Tiny: A Story About Living Small is screening at Boulder International Film Festival at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 16 and Doc Night at the Denver Film Society on Tuesday, Feb. 18. Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith will be at both screenings for a Q&A.

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