Eight Friends Built a Secret Apartment in a Mall and Hid There Undetected for Years; A New SXSW Documentary Explains How and Why

When the Providence Place Mall was constructed in the late ’90s, it was touted by Rhode Island leaders as a sign of urban renewal for its struggling capital city. For eight artists, it became something else — home.

These friends constructed a makeshift apartment — complete with a sofa, a TV and video game system, a microwave and a cinderblock wall — in a hidden alcove of the shopping complex’s garage. To run the appliances, they tapped into the mall’s electricity. Amazingly, this hangout spot (where some of the friends even spent several shivery nights), went undiscovered for four years. Their audacious gambit was launched in response to the gentrification taking place around them, a humorous protest against the capitalist forces that threatened to push the city’s artistic community to its outer edges. It’s also the subject of “Secret Mall Apartment,” a fascinating new documentary from Jeremy Workman (“Lily Topples the World”), that will premiere on March 8 at this year’s SXSW.

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“The story is kind of a Trojan horse, where you go in expecting one thing and it’s constantly subverting your preconceptions as you watch it,” Workman says. “You hear the premise, and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be like one of those crazy prank movies.’ But it’s using that to explore these deeper ideas about art and what it means, as well as gentrification and how we’re living in the shadows of these corporations.”

Workman enlisted Jesse Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominated star of “The Social Network” and “Zombieland,” as a producer, a role he previously served on Workman’s “The World Before Your Feet,” a documentary about a man who walks every street in New York City. Eisenberg felt a personal connection to the story of the Providence Place infiltrators.

“As somebody in the arts, I just kept thinking that what they’re doing is so pure, and so perfect,” Eisenberg says. “It’s art for art’s sake. I kind of viewed it from that perspective. My favorite thing to do in my life is — I write plays, I finish my play, and we do a little reading, and it’s my favorite day of the year. And then unfortunately, it gets commodified. And we have to sell tickets, and it becomes this product. And so when I’m watching this movie, I’m just taken away as an artist, the purity of their art and that kind of imagination.”

“Secret Mall Apartment” follows Michael Townsend, who had the big idea to nest inside this bastion of consumerism. His role was known, but the identities of his seven collaborators mostly flew under the radar. Workman interviewed them for the film, where they recount the complicated logistics that went into moving furniture and construction material into a busy mall, right under the noses of the security guards. “It’s almost like a heist movie,” Workman says.

Workman also had access to hours of footage that the friends took capturing life in their secret mall apartment, as well as the planning and building that went into pulling together their unlikely hideaway. Because mall personnel dismantled the structure after they discovered it, the filmmakers and the original artists built a replica of the apartment.

“It seemed only logical to redo that within this movie,” says Workman. “I needed to come up with a clever way to revisit a space that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Although the artists behind the mall apartment aren’t wealthy (some live on the economic margins), they were aware of certain benefits they enjoyed. The film points out, for example, that Townsend, who is white, didn’t have the same fears of law enforcement that a Black man might have carried.

“What’s so interesting about this film is the way that it becomes this larger discussion about housing, gentrification, urban development and even about class and race as these artists contemplate their own kind of privilege,” says Eisenberg. “They were allowed to do something on a lark without the threat of heavy policing.”

Now, the filmmakers will take “Secret Mall Apartment” to Austin, Texas, a city that’s undergone a turbo-charged version of gentrification in recent years even as it tries to remain true to its “keep Austin weird” credo.

“I feel like this is going to be really appreciated and understood there,” says Workman.

As for the Providence Place Mall, it’s seen better days. Amazon has upended the retail space, leading to a series of store closures and fewer shoppers. “They’re really struggling,” Workman says.

And Townsend — he’s still banned from setting foot in the mall he once called home.

Here’s an exclusive look at the teaser trailer for “Secret Mall Apartment”:

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