I was hoping to post these updates the following day after the screenings, but there has been way too much going on over the past few weeks, so the next few posts will be recaps of the Hot Docs 2014 Festival. As well, because I am now venturing into my own projects and the filmmaking process, I will differentiate between content and production commentary.
On my second day of screenings, I saw Slums: Cities of Tomorrow, Absences, and the Homestretch.
I appreciated the attention to language in Slums: Cities of Tomorrow. One character argued that we should call slums an “informal settlement,” as slums have a negative connotation. That was not to say that we should not recognize what these communities are, being communities of poor people, but rather change the words we use to avoid contributing to the discrimination facing people of certain socioeconomic realities. Referring to these individuals as “homeless” creates a blurry mass, and defines who these people are without putting their stories into context or even asking them themselves. Instead, using the term “people experiencing homeless” humanizes the subject and also differentiates the individual from the institutional and social forces that construct their lived realities. Indeed, one of the main scholarly characters argued that this is important because our concept of hardwork leading to success simply isn’t true; if wealth comes from one’s own merit, then people in an informal settlement should be incredibly wealthy as they engage in hard labour for survival.
The architecture of slums and the layout of “modern” cities shows how people communicate and how they are governed. Often, the intervention of government and the creation of subsidized housing is completed in a way that isn’t suitable for living a healthy life. I also appreciated that the film shows informal settlements from all over the world, including the United States and France.
One key argument of the film is that the western world has constructed and enforced an unsustainable development model on the rest of the world. After all, every country is technically continuously developing (thus there should be no “us” [the developed] and “them” [the developing]) – but what is the world at large striving to develop into? If “they” should strive to be like “us,” what would the future look like for both humanity and the environment?
One of the closing scenes of Slums: Cities of Tomorrow is a rant in the style that I love: a blurry-eyed philosophical run-on sentence at 3 am in which a man argues we should pool our resources and abandon wanting to be a celebrity for how much of the world’s resources we use in one lifetime, and instead live gently with less. “What a sad epitaph,” he comments, to be living with a hunger for more and not less. This is what the film refers to as “psychological poverty,” where everyone is poor in regards to human nature’s seemingly limitless capacity for growth: we want more, not what we already have.
Western societies see hope as existing in a private escape. However, people living in informal settlements continue to acknowledge that improvements to quality of life are only possible when fought for as a collective, public action. This film ultimately argues that we need to see the beauty and value of “other” ways of living, and restore social hope to societies that are in favour of individual hope and power.
Slums had excellent sound mixing and a great musical score, which is essential to maintaining an audience in a topic-driven documentary. Their archival material was also especially compelling to show how slums began and continue to develop in the western world, as we associate slums largely with eastern countries. This film also had great sequences due to its large amount of diverse b-roll. This large amount b-roll was probably possible to obtain by the director because they spent a lot of time with their subjects before starting to film. Financially, the producers initially wanted a budget of $750,000 (especially since there was a lot of travel involved for the crew), however, they completed the film with a budget of approximately $400,000.
Absences was compelling because of the interesting links between the stories: the absent father, the mother who abandoned her children, the slow loss of someone with Alzheimer’s and the sudden disappearance of a sister. The greatest message of the film was definitely that it is impossible for someone to passionately seek something unless it had been lost.
Absences had good audio and cinematography, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the story or editing. It seemed beforehand that the filmmaker had excellent access to the characters (her mother was one of them), however, it didn’t feel that way nor did it feel like it had delved deep enough.
Loneliness was a constant theme in The Homestretch that really impacted the audience. It was incredibly humbling, especially being given the opportunity to speak with the main characters after the film, who were four out of 19,000 students experiencing homelessness in Chicago. One pivotal moment in the film in which the audience was completely silent was when Roque, a high school student whose father was deported and whose mother didn’t want to live with him, moves in with one of his teachers and discovers the theatre. He auditions for the role of Hamlet and is granted the opportunity. During rehearsals one day, another teacher says he isn’t being “believable” enough in his performance; that she wants to be able to believe that death is the only escape from Hamlet’s reality of a mother and father who abandon and betray him.
It was obvious that the directors had great relationships with the characters and communities in which they were filming, especially considering the access they were granted with local organizations. Definitely important for a topic-driven documentary!