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Prose and Poetry
Posted 13th January 2008
Countless documentary films, in a variety of styles, have dealt with different aspects of urban life. Some that quickly come to mind are: Walter Ruttman’s exquisite Berlin Symphony (1927 - a poetic evocation of a day in the life of the city; Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1957) mix of documentary and scripted scenes that lyrically capture the Bowery at a time when no luxury hotels existed there, but rather it served as the final way station to the alcoholic and lost who slept in its doorways and flophouses; and the verité documentaries of Fred Wiseman, like Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), and Public Housing (1997), that deal with the workings of urban institutions in a number of cities, without narrative explanation or commentary.
Two profoundly dissimilar recent documentaries further demonstrate the medium’s wide range of stylistic and thematic approaches to urban life. One of the two, All of Us(Pureland Pictures), directed by Emily Abt, takes place in the Bronx - a subject I seemingly can’t stop writing about. Her Bronx is not the welcoming Bronx of my memories: the one where stickball, egg creams, movie palaces, schoolyards, and just hanging out on the block nights, played a central, pleasurable role. Abt’s 21st century Bronx is a much more painful one - where the continuing H.I.V./AIDS crisis among African-American women is the focus. And the surrounding Bronx streets are not vital and teeming, but seen merely as a lifeless, desolate backdrop to a quiet social catastrophe.
All of Us is a solid piece of committed social advocacy filmmaking. The film concentrates on the personal lives of two AIDS afflicted women, and a young, Harvard-educated, Ethiopian-born doctor, Mehret Mandefro, who is dedicated to researching the root causes of the high infection rate among black women (68% of new HIV infections occur among black women, though they're only about 7% of the population). The two strong, congenial women are struggling to survive past lives of abuse, prostitution, and drug addiction. One of them, Chevelle, has a loving fiancé (who has AIDS), a young son, the support of her church, and a somewhat strained optimism sustaining her life. The other, Tara, fights to survive agonizing operations for cervical cancer while masochistically trying to maintain a relationship with her callous, sexually demanding boyfriend. Both women have grown up in a milieu where the power and control of men in sexual relationships with women play a key role in the transmission of the virus given that their men, many who have been to prison where homosexuality and rape are common, usually reject - as a male prerogative - the use of condoms and safe sex.
An original aspect of this documentary, which is primarily shot as a series of talking heads, is that Dr. Mandefro, a psychologically sophisticated professional, begins herself to reflect on the dynamic of her own affairs with men. And she finds that she and her circle of successful multiracial, quasi-feminist women friends share a similar tendency to abdicate power to men in sexual relationships. But for them the consequences are relatively minor. They exist in a far different environment from what Tara or even the resilient Chevelle must struggle with daily. The latter two inhabit a world dominated by destructive social forces where every wrong decision hurtles them downward into psychological and physical situations from which it is difficult to escape. (Though Chevelle ultimately does.)
This socially affecting, austerely shot film is just one of the ways a documentary can capture a slice of urban life, but there are much more ambitious and imaginatively cinematic ways for film to deal with the subject. Terrence Davies’s Of Time and the City (opening In New York on Jan, 21) is a personal and stunning-looking documentary about growing up a gay, Catholic, movie-besotted, working class outsider in the British port city, Liverpool. It’s the work of a truly original British director, Terrence Davies (e.g., the remarkable Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The House of Mirth), whose film has more to do with his own psyche and sensibility than with Liverpool Itself.
Still, using archival film of an earlier Liverpool spliced together with some new footage he has shot, Davies beautifully evokes his somewhat ambivalent relationship to the city that both helped make him the artist he is today, and that he left behind. The film (Davies also wrote the script) is a love letter, tinged with sorrow, to a city that Davies can idealise at times. Liverpool was a tough working class city dominated by railways, factories, sulphurous air and longshoremen in cloth caps. And though there were wealthy sections they are barely touched on in the film. What is more typical are the mean smoke-filled, narrow cobblestone streets where workers lived in row house terraces, and their undernourished children sometimes played in piles of rubble. But these images of streets with eternally wet pavements, of house-proud women on their knees scrubbing their stoops or doing the wash at the municipal laundry, young girls and boys innocently playing street games (the street was an extension of the home) are put together in such a vivid way, with a soprano singing incandescently on the soundtrack, that Davies’ memories become sublime.
Of Time and the City takes the reality of the “dirty old town” and turns it into painting and poetry, something larger and more radiant than the facts of life. All of Us stays data bound. It’s clearly not poetry, but makes us powerfully aware of the severity of the AIDS epidemic, and the social norms that accentuate it.