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PFA documentary captures a suburban war zone in SoCal

By Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday April 09, 2002

In 1995, the year the Oklahoma City federal building was razed by an ex-soldier with a truckload of fertilizer, a small news item from a San Diego suburb surfaced in papers and on televisions across the country. A man named Shawn Nelson stole an army tank and went on a 23-minute joy ride through Clairmont, plowing over parked cars and streetlights like they were children’s toys. 

Video images of the tank, caught by a helicopter following the tank, were as disconcerting in pictures of destruction as they were disorienting: why is there a tank roaming a quiet American suburb? 

San Diego-native Garrett Scott, then a graduate student in Milwaukee, Wis., was told by a colleague about the odd story. The next day, Scott learned it happened in San Diego. “Everything clicked,” remembered Scott. “Of course he stole a tank in Clairmont.” 

That realization was the impetus for Scott’s first film project, “Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story,”, which will be screening this evening at the Pacific Film Archive.  

What was for the rest of the nation a freakish news item to chuckle about around the water cooler was a culminating gesture after a decade of social and economic decline in American’s military-industrial communities. 

Clairmont was established in 1952 as a residential community to cheaply house soldiers and factory workers after World War II. The Cold War insured a steady supply of federal money for manufacturing plants, trickling down to the factory workers who owned homes via the G.I. Bill. Like many small towns sparked by the military spending boom, Clairmont was a hard-working, blue-collar, conservative suburb where every generation’s expectation was to go into the military or get a comfortable, lucrative factory job. 

That expectation changed when the Berlin Wall came down. “Consequently you have an interruption in this cycle of continuous generations going in and out of the factories and building San Diego,” said Scott. 

Shawn Nelson was one of the many homeowners in Clairmont affected by these economic and social changes. He is the mysterious and absent center of Scott’s investigation of the town’s demise. Nelson didn’t survive his joy ride. After beaching the tank on a freeway’s concrete center divider, pursuing police opened the hatch and fired into the tank, killing Nelson. 

Nelson’s friends and neighbors trace a posthumous picture in “Cul de Sac,” supplying speculation and theorem to his actions while acting out of portrait of Clairmont. Scott said in his interviews he heard of government surveillance and Black Helicopter conspiracy theories. The film also takes us to a 25-foot mineshaft behind Nelson’s own backyard where he thought he had a gold vein. 

The mineshaft is shown in archival news footage wherein a local television reporter broadcast live from Nelson’s backyard after the rampage. Taciturn and irate neighbors, by turn, speak circularly or yell profanities at the reporter as if he were a prospector encroaching on a weirdly inhospitable wilderness. 

While making “Cul de Sac,” Scott learned firsthand the eccentricities of the depressed town. Clairmont, like all of San Diego and it’s surrounding counties, was at that time steeped in the drug crystal methamphetamine, a kind of speed that can be cooked up in crude labs and had reached epidemic proportions in San Diego in the 1980s and ‘90s. 

“People were animated or nervous and changed the subject every four or five seconds,” said Scott about many of the subjects featured in the film. “It can be confusing, and it was very confusing during the initial interviews. Then I started realizing everyone was high.” 

“Cul de Sac” does not mock or judge its subjects. The documentary’s cool investigation surrounding the “hot” imagery of the tank’s rampage is an earnest presentation of an eroding faith in government — a distrust that might be quietly eating away patriotism in other communities but burst on Clairmont with a gesture of “great symbolic power.”  

“The people who live in Clairmont feel tremendously alienated,” said Scott of the once-middle-class residents slipping into lower economic straits filled with drugs and crime. “This life was in stark contrast to their childhood. A lot of cloudy animosity was focused on the government as the main agent behind their alienation.” 

So, why did Shawn Nelson do it? Why would an ex-soldier whose income had been largely determined by government spending steal a tank for 23 minutes of pointless destruction? It can’t be easily or succinctly answered. Scott says that’s why he made the film. “The image of the tank in the suburbs is loaded in so many ways.”