"Until very recently, bartending was something people looked at as something they did between other jobs. What you see here is people doing it as a profession," says Douglas Tirola, director of the film Hey Bartender, which screens this week at the Three Rivers Film Festival.
The film follows the story of two bartenders — an ex-Marine who dreams of working at a top Manhattan cocktail bar, and a former bank executive struggling to keep his neighborhood bar in business — while weaving a narrative about the origins of the contemporary craft-cocktail trend.
"Fifteen years ago, nobody thought that much of bartenders or cocktails," Tirola says. Now, handcrafted cocktails — and the bartenders who make them — are an important part of a city's nightlife. In that sense, he says, "While you might not see Pittsburgh in the movie, you'll still see what's happening in Pittsburgh in the movie. You'll be able to relate to it."
Tirola thinks that Pittsburgh's bars are beginning to get the attention they deserve, with the number of bars with focused cocktails programs having exploded in recent years. Tender, Acacia, Spoon, Bar Marco and others boast talented bartenders, and the city's chapter of the United States Bartender's Guild is growing.
But Tirola says that Pittsburgh also has a complementary old-school neighborhood bar culture — one that might offer some lessons to craft-cocktail bars. "The audience is also going to see ... a great tradition of neighborhood bars and taverns, and regain an appreciation for places like that."
And that, he says, is an important message of the film: "The hospitality side [of bartending] got lost a little bit in pursuit of the art of the cocktails," Tirola says. But mixing with people is a skill just like mixing drinks — and it's one that neighborhood bars can teach.
The films screens at 7 p.m., Thu., Nov 21, at the Harris Theater; a Q&A with Tirola follows. It's also available for purchase on iTunes.