POV: Flag Wars takes on an ambitious project: to tell the story of a trend, gentrification, that is taking place in communities across the country but is too often only discussed in terms of economics and policy. How did you approach the task of humanizing a topic that could feel so abstract to many viewers?
Laura Poitras: Throughout the four years of filming and grant writing, we never really described Flag Wars as a story about “gentrification” because that term is too reductive. I was always more interested in the universal story of two communities with different histories and resources struggling over the future of the same neighborhood.
We were always committed to telling the story from the perspective of the characters we followed. Larger social forces like economics and policies are enacted and lived by individuals and we wanted to show how they operated on a micro level. That is why we chose to focus on one neighborhood, rather than doing a comparative survey.
One of the issues I hope Flag Wars reveals is the distinction between structural and individual manifestations of power. When I moved to Harlem, I did not intend to displace someone, yet my move was part of a larger set of forces that has that effect. I did not inquire about the history of the person or family that lived there before me and the circumstances of their departure. All I saw was a beautiful empty apartment. What I believe is so emotionally devastating and tragic about Flag Wars is that it reveals these histories and asks us to consider the cost of our individual and social “progress” in a society often driven by self-interest and material gain. If we learned the human stories of all the things that make up our lives in this society (i.e. what we eat, what we wear, the land we occupy, etc.), would we make the same choices and hold the same values?
Linda Goode Bryant: At its core, gentrification is about people. For it to occur, it requires that an existing group of people live in and a place where a new group of people are moving. By focusing on the economics and public policy issues, we lose sight of the human impact gentrification has on existing and new residents to a community. The motivation for making this documentary was to capture that impact and its affect on a community.
With that said, forthright honesty humanizes everything and that is what the residents of the Near Eastside/Olde Towne East were courageous and generous in sharing. As filmmakers, we explained what it was we wanted to do, why, and that we were committed to representing what we observed fairly and without judgment. The residents of this community did the rest.
Check out what Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras had to say in response to questions that viewers sent in. »