Ready, Table, SET! A Documentary

setWorld Premiere at Hot Docs
Canadian International
Documentary Festival
April 29 – May 9, 2021

Tablescaping is serious business in SET! a documentary. In the competitive world of where up and coming talents show off their skills at county fairs, it can make or break–especially if that’s these people’s job! It’s not just about how to fold that napkin into an attractive flower but also knowing how to arrange the plates and food together in a way so the diner can feel like a king. These contests also requires a list of pretend meals to go with the display, and I suspect the skills can also be applied at promotions at many a convention (comic book or otherwise). Having a well organized table attracts returning customers.

California’s Orange County hosts one of the most recognized events for this state, and there’s many more world-wide. To be a judge, however, means working in the catering business for a long time and knowing what your clients want. It’s less about the fancy decorations for that one individual to feel like he’s in the jungle (one of many themes seen in this doc), but more about what the table setter can dream up for that ultimate dining experience. Writer/director Scott Gawlik’s work spotlights an eclectic mix of folks to show what this artistic endeavour means to them.

040621_USE ME_SET!.00_08_15_13.Still005Some of these individuals see this practise as therapy. The Mother-daughter team of Marie and Christel Schoenfelder, and “Water Babes” Cheryl von der Helle and Ginnie Jacobs (they exercise at a swimming pool) are two such groups who use the time to bond as a family. With the former, they lost the patriarch of the house recently, and the latter is simply looking at having something to do together. They even have friends offer their critical opinion. It’s easy to go overboard and somebody has to set them straight. Once when these contestants put their mind to winning–especially when they have half a year to plan in advance–time flies by. Any problems are put out to the pasture. It’s less about escape and more about having an anchor so these individuals don’t become hopelessly detached from life.

I don’t see these folks as obsessive-compulsive when considering the lengths they went through to get that display right. They even recruit their significant others (or parent) and their responses are chuckle worthy. They either take it in stride or have their own opinion. The best laugh-out-loud moment is “All this money to try and win a 50-cent ribbon.”

A detail not fully explored is in what these people do when not preparing for the next competition? Are they hired to make dinner table displays elsewhere, like with a catering business? Surely, all those ribbons earned in the past must mean something in the long run. It can’t be left to set up the next formal dinner gathering at home. This film was made pre-pandemic (before the tables have turned, pardoning the pun) and the world was told to self isolate. Tablescaping is a great skill to pick up and learn along the way while stuck at home. Some of these folks are housewives, and as for why less men are involved is a question that isn’t answered in this documentary.

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Tim Wykoff has many reasons to partake in this world. It helps cure his blues. As a cosplayer, the skills he’s developed shows he has talent! The costume he’s made to wear at comic book conventions is somewhere between representing the Green Goblin and a Leprechaun. Plus, he knows it’s not easy keeping that shirt of his neatly pressed and pristine white! 

These skills are transferable so anyone can be an interior decorator or graphic designer if they so wanted. Everyone is very hands on with getting that table display for dining right! The homes Gawilk’s film crew visited show how Janet Lew, another competitor, can’t bear to tear down her previous works. She has a room dedicated to them and I had to laugh when she said she won’t eat from those tables–which can sometimes miss the point of why these dinnerware displays exist.

Another team uses the competition to bond and share ideas. To make something immaculate while feasting in a Sultan’s dining room is inspiring.

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Ultimately, the opinions of Bonnie Overman sums up what the payoff is about. It’s less about winning the coveted best of show ribbon and more on developing those skills to help people become better individuals. She said, “You’re taking a risk. What can be risker than taking your very creative being and putting it out there for someone else to judge, and then let a lot of people see what the result is.

“Taking those risks in life makes you stronger; and it also helps you handle some disappointments and victories that are in life. So I hope people that see all this realize that this can be applied to everything you want to do.”

4 Blokes out of 5

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