The Callers (First Run Features, NR)

dvd the-callersThey’re all essentially performing the same ancient task of matching goods with buyers.


Auctions are an age-old form of commerce. Reportedly, brides were sold at auction in ancient Babylon, and Roman soldiers auctioned off the spoils of war following a victory. The reason for the enduring popularity of auctions is simple: If you have goods to sell, and you want to sell them now, the obvious way to do it is to get together a bunch of buyers together, and let the goods go to those willing to pay the highest price for them. Auctions work out from the buyers’ point of view, also. If you want to buy something not available from your average retail outlet (whether antique farm machinery or John F. Kennedy’s humidor), it makes sense to go to wherever said good is likely to be sold, and pay the least you can to get it.

The person who connects the worlds of buyers and sellers is the auctioneer, and in the United States, at least, their trade is associated with a sing-song type of patter immortalized in Leroy Van Dyke’s “The Auctioneer” (and covered by Steve Goodman, among others). Susan Sfarra’s new documentary The Callers takes you to the world of auctions in rural Pennsylvania, where an array of auctioneers talk about their craft and let you watch them at work.

Estate sales seem to form the bulk of their business, and while that generally means that someone has died, one of the auctioneers points out that it’s all part of the cycle of life (of material goods, that is): Someone uses a piece of furniture their whole life, and if it’s well made, it can be passed on to someone else to use. One of the auctioneers also ruminate on how times have changed. In the old days, people would go to an auction for entertainment and stay all day, whereas now they’re in a hurry, and they don’t want to spend more than a few hours before they’re on to whatever else they’re doing that day. Still, the auctioneers are a pleasant and sociable group, and seem reasonably happy with the trade they’ve chosen.

The Callers is a modest but effective film transporting you for 90 minutes to the back roads of rural Pennsylvania and the world of people who buy and sell—not from a retail store with fixed prices, but through an ancient practice in which the price is whatever someone is willing to pay on a given occasion. One of the film’s special delights is the variety of auctioneers Sfarra found to feature in her film. They’re young and old, male and female, new to the business or in it for generations, but all essentially performing the same ancient task of matching goods with buyers.

Extras on the DVD include bonus four bonus clips, a PDF of tongue twisters, and a biography of the filmmaker. | Sarah Boslaugh

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