By Sue Botos
What is more American than the bumper sticker? In a few words, they humor or offend. They tell the world the driver has visited the Outer Banks, supports the president, has an honor student or loves a beagle. Some cars have one, a perfectly centered declaration on the rear bumper. Other vehicles look like they are held together with stuck-on opinions.
Rocky River filmmaker Cigdem Slankard decided to investigate the bumper sticker as a communication device as well as the American pop culture icon it has become since being invented by a silk-screen artist in 1931. The result was her documentary “The Great American Bumper Sticker,” one of 61 films chosen from close to 300 entries to be featured at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival, running today through Sunday in Chagrin Falls.
“I’m not originally from the United States and I always thought this was a peculiar thing to do,” said the native of Turkey in a phone interview. Slankard added that she was intrigued by the ability of the stickers to make a simple point without the usual conversation. “I started with the attitude that this was kind of lowbrow communication, but I came out of it respecting (bumper stickers) more,” she noted.
Slankard said she first “fell in love” with filmmaking as an exchange student at SUNY (State University of New York) in Binghamton, N.Y. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in translation and interpreting from Bogazici University in Istanbul, she studied filmmaking at Ohio University, earning a master’s degree in 2002. She was a professor in the communications departments of West Virginia State University, Cleveland State University and Baldwin-Wallace College. Currently, she is program manager of visual communications and design at Cuyahoga Community College.
“This is my first big feature-length narrative,” Slankard said of the 33-minute work, which includes interviews with pop culture scholars and those with decal-covered cars, who explore the reasons why they have chosen to wear their hearts on their bumpers. Sticker expression is not just limited to cars and trucks. One segment features a man who has decked out his wheelchair with decals. (Visit www.cigdemslankard.com/cigdemslankard/Documentary.html to see the trailer.)
Slankard recalled one of the funniest interviews was with country singer Antsy McClain, who wrote a song titled, “I Was Just Flipped Off by a Silver Haired Old Lady With a Honk If You Love Jesus Sticker on the Bumper of Her Car,” based on a true experience. In contrast to the woman Slankard filmed, who stated that her Christian bumper stickers reminded her to act accordingly, the subject of McClain’s tune greeted his friendly toot with a rather surly gesture.
“I love pop culture. These are the kinds of things I am drawn to,” said Slankard, adding that her work often explores women’s issues as well as the “self-deprecating humor of Clevelanders.”
These topics are woven into one of her most recent works, “Forbidden Love,” a short film she directed, which is one of 11 vignettes included in “Cleveland, I Love You,” a collaboration of 11 of the city’s most acclaimed film writers and directors. Slankard’s film tells the story of a bank teller who falls for a Muslim co-worker and the cultural differences that stand in the way. “Cleveland, I Love You,” which also features appearances by Robin Swoboda and Leon Bibb, is expected to premiere later this year or early in 2013.
Slankard said that one of the things she took away from her foray into the world of bumper stickers is the sincerity of those who chose to stick to their ideals. “I used to look down upon it as a cliche, but it’s actually a sign of conviction.”
Slankard laughs when asked if she has been convinced to “stick” to her convictions. “I have an NPR magnet,” she admitted.