SDFF2020 Official Selection The Great Toilet Paper Scare
SDFF 2020 programmers selected Brian Gersten’s The Great Toilet Paper Scare in the Fall, for its effective, humorous take on an early iteration of “fake news.” The film’s titular event, a toilet paper shortage, took shape following a Johnny Carson joke in 1973, and can be seen as prototypical of present day fake news that inundates social media. What neither SDFF nor filmmaker Gersten could ever have anticipated was that his story’s specific subject—a paucity of toilet paper—would be repeated in a more literal way, as consumers hoarded toilet paper and other essential items when COVID-19 made landfall in the U.S. earlier this year. Although the circumstances leading to these two shortages couldn’t be more different—a one-off Johnny Carson joke in one case, a global pandemic in the other—both arise and take shape in relationship to specific forms of media in contexts marked by distrust in institutions and reliance on word-of-mouth.
In Director Gersten’s words:
As I worked on the film over the past year I could have never imagined how bizarrely relevant this documentary would become. I have fairly mixed emotions about it all to be quite honest. While it’s nice to get your hard work out into the world, it’s also overwhelming to see what’s unfolding and to see history repeat itself in certain ways. The goal with this project from the very beginning was to simply make a film about a bizarre and forgotten piece of history that people would ideally find funny and entertaining. I think my goal now is for people to use the film as a mirror of sorts. A fun-house mirror perhaps. There are hopefully plenty of lessons to be learned, and chuckles to be had, from watching it and reflecting on it.
Despite the Coronavirus-based postponement and/or cancellation of most upcoming U.S. and International film festivals, where smaller independent films typically gain visibility and distribution, Gersten’s short has gained national notoriety. The short’s growing notoriety is due, at least in part, to its irreverent, humorous approach approach to a problem that has not only persisted, but has also morphed with the media through which it is spread. The Great Toilet Paper Scare is the subject of a March 19 column in The Atlantic, “What Misinformation Has to Do With Toilet Paper,” is currently streaming on SDFF’s homepage and is also slated to screen as part of SDFF2020, the revised dates of which have yet to be announced.