Stephanie Luna interned with America ReFramed in 2017 summer program.
The documentaries that are a part of POV and America ReFramed demonstrate how filmmaking can be combined with social issues to portray honest and real stories from around the world. I initially became interested in how documentaries can be used to tell stories about communities when I watched the HBO’s Class Divide. The documentary examines the income inequality in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood through the perspectives of the residents of a public housing project and the students who attend an elite private school right across the street from it. Class Dividewas my introduction to nonfiction films that address urban challenges since I started studying Urban Sociology, and I wanted to learn more about the intersection between my studies and documentary filmmaking.
I first watched Class Divide simply as a viewer with little knowledge about the process of filmmaking in general. Because of this, I mainly focused on the emotional aspects of the story and just listened to what the characters were saying. Throughout my internship with America ReFramed, I learned to view a documentary from a more critical standpoint. My experience taught me to delve into different perspectives and consider various aspects of filmmaking. To instead consider why the filmmaker choose particular moments, the techniques used convey information to the audience and how this information is altered through the methods chosen. This was particularly important to me because I compared the information in documentaries about urban issues with what I was learning in school, in addition to my own experiences living in an urban space.
America ReFramed has a variety of documentaries that take up urban issues from a social, historical and/or economic perspective. These films share the stories of people and neighborhoods across the United States as they deal with urban challenges in their communities. Three particular documentaries from America ReFramed that discuss similar issues relating to urban redevelopment and housing are 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green, My Brooklyn, and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.
70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green (2014) by Ronit Bezalel discusses the demolition of Cabrini Green, public housing in Chicago, and the construction of mixed-income condominiums in its place. Uurban redevelopment and public housing is addressed through the lens of the people who live in the neighborhood, the people who are displaced, and the people who are moving in.
Bezalel uses a mixture of pathos and historical information to discuss the social issues prevalent in Chicago. 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green primarily consists of interviews to affirm the experiences of residents — ranging from youth to people who have lived in Cabrini Green for years. This technique allows the audience to quickly learn about the characters and form a connection with them. By using the voice of the residents to describe the problems being faced, the film evokes an emotional connection with the audience that may otherwise be missing if the story was told from the point of view of an outsider.
To illustrate, the narrator of the documentary mentions the racial segregation of an area in the 1940s called “Little Sicily,” where people were displaced and Cabrini Green was built in its place. This narration is supplemented by black and white footage of the area. However, in order to go beyond simply relaying this information to the audience, it also includes interviews with residents that parallel the historical context shown. A person in the film discusses the class segregation that residents face due to the different set of institutions for public housing — this includes a separate police department and garbage collectors. This duality of narration and interviews works to not only create an emotional connection with the characters, but also to contemporize the issues and point out how these social issues from the 1940s and 50s were prevalent then, and still prevalent today.
My Brooklyn (2012) by Kelly Anderson discusses the gentrification of the Fulton Mall area in Brooklyn, and its detrimental effect on small businesses in that area. Anderson addresses how income inequality and race play a part in gentrification by focusing on her own experiences and the impact she had on the neighborhood when she moved to New York City.
Anderson incoporates photographs, music and maps as visuals to create narrative and describe Brooklyn. By starting the documentary with a mixture of hip-hop music and various photographs of the people and places of Brooklyn throughout the years, Kelly Anderson creates an image of Brooklyn that corresponds to her statement of the neighborhood changing and being depicted as a “hip, expensive brand.”
During the documentary there is a map of Brooklyn that highlights the areas Anderson has lived in. This map is useful visual to both help viewers understand the dynamics of Brooklyn neighborhoods and allow Anderson to reflect on her presence in both a contemporary and historical sense. After a historical summary of the economic and policy decisions that fueled urban housing issues and displacement, Anderson states, “I know my presence helped fuel that pain.” By incorporating her voice directly into the documentary, she’s able to offer a unique perspective and acknowledgement of the changes in housing, businesses and demographics in Brooklyn.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) by Chad Freidrichs investigates the historical background of urban renewal and housing issues in St. Louis by concentrating on the creation and destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing development. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth focuses on both the residents of Pruitt-Igoe as they face rapid deindustrialization and segregation by class and race, and the perception of outsiders and critics of public assistance programs.
Freidrichs primarily uses a narrator in order to provide historical context of urban redevelopment, allowing the audience to focus on the information and learn. By having a narrator, Freidrichs is able to communicate a lot of information in regards to urban renewal, de-industrialization, segregation and public policies in a short amount of time. Through this approach, Freidrichs gave the audience a historical understanding of the economic and social atmosphere in St. Louis that eventually led to the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe.
Freidrichs’ use of photographs of torn down buildings, broken windows and emptiness illustrate the social issues impacting St. Louis. Though the broken-windows theory is not directly discussed, the photographs of broken windows and scattered glass emphasize the stereotypes of public assistance programs addressed in the documentary. Moreover, the lack of people and businesses shown in other photographs highlight the declining population due to mass suburbanization that was occurring in St. Louis in the 1950s — a challenge that St. Louis faces to this day.