How the Other Half Lives
This year’s festival informed us of a new term: “poverty porn”. Needless to say, docs about the suffering and dignity of the less fortunate are as old as the genre itself. The question is, is it the filmmakers or the audience who make it “porn”?
Two films, Steve James’ The Interrupters and Chad Freidrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth take us deep into the heart of darkness of American inner-city poverty and violence. Both are films of remarkable integrity, digging well below the surface issues, inviting complexity and questions over simple, black-and-white victims and villains.
Nonetheless, one can never get over that fact that the audience at the festival is almost entirely pale, liberal, and relatively well-to-do.
The Interrupters is another verité masterpiece from the director who brought us the academy award winning Hoop Dreams which ranks #1 on the International Documentary Association’s Top 25 Documentaries list. The Interrupters takes us into the streets of inner-city Chicago, where a violence prevention program called CeaseFire trains and employs a team of ex-cons, gang enforcers, and murderers to go into streets and diffuse potentially deadly conflicts as they occur. While CeaseFire is the brainchild of Dr. Gary Slutkin, an Epidemiologist who argues that violence can be best treated as a contagious but preventable disease, the film focuses on three compelling street-level interrupters: Ameena Matthews, daughter of an ex-gang kingpin; Cobe Williams, who served time for drug trafficking; and Eddie Bocanegro, who was convicted of manslaughter as a teenager.
Like Buck, all three protagonists are deft communicators—dare we call them gang whisperers?
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth likewise takes us to places where no white man has dared to go. As it happens, St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe projects in were shuttered in 1972 after a short, beleaguered history that serves as a lesson in failed ambitions and desecrated dreams.
Built in the heyday of post-war manufacturing factoring boom, the massive project of some 33 11-story buildings—penthouses for the poor—was touted as a solution to St. Louis’ housing crisis and urban blight. But as the film shows, the seeds of destruction were sown from the very beginning.
In 1954 when the towers were built, the manufacturing base that was supposed to employ Pruitt-Igoe’s residents—or for which Puitt-Igoe was intended to provide cheap labor, depending on how you look at it—was in rapid decline, and white flight to the suburbs just picking up speed. And because maintenance for the projects was dependent upon revenue from the residents’ rent, the projects soon fell into abysmal disrepair.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
Testimonies from former Pruitt-Igoe residents are as prideful as they are bitter, describing the euphoria of moving in to multi-bedroom units with the modern-day amenities of electricity, plumbing, elevators and garbage chutes and warm sense of community that survived even while the projects slide into disrepair and danger.
If The Interrupters forces us to confront present-day manifestations of the inner-city violence epidemic, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth shows us, at least in part, how the conditions were created in which it could thrive. While both films are in the vein of How the Other Half Lives, neither offers easy answers to the difficult questions they pose.
You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Tell You Which Way the Wind Blows
Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain, which won honorable mention at the festival, delivers a cogent critique of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Coal accounts for 50 percent of the power generated in the US. And the race for ever-increasing profit has quickened an industry shift from (unionized) labor-intensive mining to literally blasting down through mountains to access the layers coal beneath.
Aerial shots reveal the devastation: mountaintops formerly carpeted in lush forest reduced to moonscape wastelands. That mountaintops of scrub grass, rocks, and stone “streams” (designed to funnel rain water off the mountain and, incidentally, in to the towns below) count as “restoration” is thanks to a Bush-era tinker to a key regulation.
The film traces the stories of local residents’ increasingly bold moves to preserve the last untouched mountain in the Coal River Valley, West Virginia, area. Joined by Bobby Kennedy and a motley crew of tattooed, pierced, dreadlocked, and earnest youth, the community plays David to Big Coal’s Goliath.
The Last Mountain
According to the film, the alternative to Big Coal: Big Wind, harnessed by a chain of ridge-top windmills, feeding energy in to the grid. Graceful, serene, all clean lines: these gentle giants promise “green” energy wrapped up in Danish-modern aesthetics. You can almost feel the residents of the Coal River Valley humming with fervor (desperation?) that windmills will deliver a viable substitute to our addiction to coal, and an alternative to blowing up Coal River Mountain.
The film suffers a bit from a fairly standard structure and a love affair with Kennedy, who gets too much air time. Young Bobby’s visit to “Uncle Jack” in the White House, complete with pet salamander and a budding environmentalism, is much too precious—especially when compared to, say, residents’ stories of brain tumors found in those who live near coal facilities. But laying aside these minor flaws, the film offers a lovely portrait of a community tilting at Big Coal and Big Money—and a disturbing window into the role of Big Coal in local, state, and national politics, and how the drive for ever increasing profits is threatening the health and future of us all.
Kennedy-approved big wind, however, proves a less friendly force in Laura Israel’s Windfall. Here, Corporate big wind is blowing through the small town of Meredith, New York, with foreign companies “prospecting” for promising wind sites, and leasing property rights (for pennies, compared to eventual corporate profits, and an iron-clad confidentiality clause) to erect industrial wind turbines. In the fifth poorest county in New York State, Meredith is confronting questions of economic survival: large dairy farms are giving way both to high unemployment and to “newcomers” opening niche farms or raising grass-fed beef for small batch sale. (Note: even 30+ year residents are considered newbies, when they speak out against big wind.) Wind promises not just income, but green energy and the opportunity to do one’s part to protect the environment.
But at 400 feet tall, with blades that spin upwards of 195 miles per hour, the giant windmills lose the gentle air they enjoyed in The Last Mountain. Windfall visits neighbors of other “wind farms”, where turbines emit endless low-frequency noise that disrupts sleep and causes health problems, fling hunks of ice at nearby homes, collapse and burst in to flame, and cast strobe-shadows that drive film-goers bonkers after just moments. No glamorous Kennedy or calming soundtrack here: just folks too poor to move away once big wind sets down next door.
This is a tale of politics, economics, and the environment writ small, local, and personal. And Windfall’s cast of characters is transfixing—each clearly feels, deeply, that he or she has the best interest of the community at heart. But as planning and town board meetings grow long and contentious, and residents attempt to obtain and make sense of the science and economics of Big Wind, the strain is palpable.
The film feels a bit thin on Hard Science (just what are the health effects of low frequency noise?). But perhaps that’s the point: we watch as one small community, without funds, expertise, or an existing regulatory framework, grapples with economic stagnation, complex science, big industry, and the challenge of regulating something as ineffable as wind.