Jun 30 2011
SilverDocs Film Review: The Interrupters and To Be Heard
“It’s a war game. You don’t play for fun, you play for real, like life.”
In the short time graduate school does not consume my life, I like to play chess in Dupont Circle. JoJo, a magnificent toothless drunk, acts as my mentor. He teaches me everything I need to know about the game, as well as the occasional ‘life tip’. JoJo is the kind of character David Simon would dream up—heartbreakingly true to the streets. And yesterday JoJo got me thinking about documentary and a couple of the films I saw at SilverDocs…
If you’re into documentary, then you’ve probably got an opinion on how the subject should be represented. You probably think a lot about character, and discuss the problematic portrayal of voice. Why not? Great characters are undoubtedly essential to great documentaries. I have my own opinions on character—I like fewer voices, I find it hard to watch ‘unlikeable’ characters, and, in the same vein, I want to empathize with the subject. Creating a good character, in my opinion, is capturing an authentic subject with cinematic honesty. And, prior to SilverDocs, I thought subject meant person. But after a week at SilverDocs, I’ve changed my mind. Subject and character extend beyond human form to embody the setting in which the subjects finds themselves. Yes, setting is its own beast, but more and more with documentary I wonder if the ‘where it happens’ somehow gets caught up in the ‘who it happens to’.
Two films in particular at SilverDocs drew my attention to the city as subject. The first was Steve James’ The Interrupters, set in various Chicago neighbourhoods (read: Hoodz), and the second was the collaborative project To Be Heard, set in the Bronx. The Interrupters caught my attention with its self-proclaimed intention, ‘a year on the streets of Chicago’. Think David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Corner, except instead of a pen they use a camera, instead of West Fayette and Monroe, it’s Englewood, and instead of Ella Thompson, Amena Mattews takes on the role of ‘modern day hero’. The Corner and The Interrupters are both works of non-fiction attempting to capture life in an inner city neighbourhood. In this regard, the neighbourhood proves the most essential facet of both works, it not only guides the chronology of the piece (both use seasonal quarters as markers) it also defines the characters the film follows. As the film develops it becomes obvious why the city plays such a strong role, as the lead characters constantly associate their identity with their place, to the extent where it creates a kind of co-dependence. The people would not exist without the streets and the streets would not exist without the people.
A similar street/people fusion exists in To Be Heard. Like The Interrupters, To Be Heard begins by acknowledging the ‘setting’ as the most significant element of the film. A long (long) shot of the Bronx appears on screen. There is an unusual silence, then, slowly, the noise of the city begins to increase. The brilliant slow fade up of the city noise over the one establishing shot draws the viewer in making him aware of the constant city noise to which he would otherwise never listen (clever, right?) Life on the streets defines the three high school protagonists in To Be Heard as much as it does the gang members in The Interrupters. Perhaps most tragically so with Anthony, who desperately wants to escape the Bronx, but appears so tied to the streets the possibility of another life seems unattainable. This interwoven connection between character and setting is a truth that non-fiction work often cannot avoid. While fictional films can draw distinctions between setting and character, works such as To Be Heard and The Interrupters reveal how the city itself exists as subject.