Toronto International Film Festival 2006

Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

Marginalized

Two documentaries detail the snares of living in the ’burbs

We're a happy family: The Moss family is your guide to the suburban experience in the documentary Radiant City. (Donna Brunsdale. Burns Film Ltd.) We're a happy family: The Moss family is your guide to the suburban experience in the documentary Radiant City. (Donna Brunsdale. Burns Film Ltd.)

What is it about suburbia that so captivates — or maybe make that enrages — filmmakers? Rarely are the ’burbs portrayed in film without a kitsch-eating smirk or a mounting sense of dread. Shots of Astroturf lawns, cookie-cutter houses and Godzilla-sized malls have become shorthand for one of three things: oppressive conformity (Far From Heaven), middle-class ennui (American Beauty) or “Cue the zombies!” (Dawn of the Dead).

Two Canadian documentaries premiering at the Toronto film festival, however, have found fresh approaches to this over-worked subject matter. Radiant City by filmmaker Gary Burns (The Suburbanators, waydowntown) and journalist Jim Brown, and EMPz 4 Life by master documentarian Allan King (Warrendale, Dying at Grace) are set in night-and-day-different suburbs — one largely white and middle-class, the other mainly black and poor. Each film examines the impact a neighbourhood has on its residents.

Taking its name from the disastrous, 20th-century urban planning vision of influential architect Le Corbusier — which created massive, alienating high-rise residential towers on city outskirts — Radiant City is set in a sprawling new development outside of Calgary. It’s home to the Mosses, a perfect-on-paper family with some serious issues: the mom is a control freak, the son is fascinated with firearms and the dad is venting his pent-up frustration by starring in an amateur musical that satirizes suburban living. Interspersed with artfully composed interviews with architects, urban planners and philosophers, the Mosses’ regimented lifestyle illustrates both the positive (spacious, affordable homes) and negative (lengthy commutes, isolation, homogeneity) aspects of suburbia.

“Gary and I both grew up in suburbs,” Brown says, “but the suburbs we grew up in are nothing like the new suburbs. Where we grew up, there were stores and parks within walking distance. I was just amazed the first time I went into these new developments. They’re otherworldly. These places are totally isolated pods, and what happens is, [they] become an interior society. All the focus is on your interior space and there’s no focus on the neighbourhood. It’s a very isolating existence.”

That point is underlined by the palpable loneliness of the Moss family, whose monster home is tastefully appointed but seemingly unlived in; they’re too busy commuting, or ferrying their children to soccer or gymnastics. Reflecting on his inability to pursue his dreams or follow a big idea, the father, Evan, laments that “life seems to happen to me a lot.”

“Suburban sprawl is a very complex issue,” Burns says. “You can point at the developers — and I think the developers know they’re building really inferior communities, but money comes first ... but, we didn’t want to make a film that said, ‘Here’s the bad guys’ and fill it full of statistics. We were trying to get at the experience of living in the suburbs by following people who actually lived there, and provide a balanced view.”

The bleak statistics that do appear in the film — urban sprawl causes numerous evils, including a reliance on gas-guzzling cars, decreased civic engagement and alienated, suicidal teenagers — are leavened, somewhat, by Patrick McLaughlin’s canny cinematography. The human subjects look ant-like beside the rambling McMansions, enormous highway barriers and piles of construction debris. And through some time-lapse camera trickery, a cross-city commute becomes an epic study of boredom — a visual subversion of the suburban dream. In fact, the entire film dances a fine line between methodically documenting the failed promise of the 'burbs and hilariously satirizing it.

“One of the reasons we play with reality in the film is that these suburbs play with reality,” Brown says. “It’s all very pretend… You’ll have one [development] with a Sherwood Forest Robin Hood theme, or an Olde English theme, and when you look at the houses, they’ll look colonial or arts and crafts. But the closer you get to them, the illusion starts to disintegrate. When you get right up next to them, you see that what you thought were cedar shingles is really just a big sheet of plastic formed to look like shingles.”

Eyes on suburbia: Brian Henry works with at-risk youth in the Allan King documentary EMPz 4 Life. (Allan King Films Ltd)
Eyes on suburbia: Brian Henry works with at-risk youth in the Allan King documentary EMPz 4 Life. (Allan King Films Ltd)

There are no such tweaks of reality in EMPz 4 Life. This “actuality drama,” as Allan King puts it, marks his 50th year as a filmmaker. Shot cinéma vérité style, the film follows a group of young black men living in the gun-plagued Malvern area in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.

As in most of King’s work, the film contains no voice-over narration or interviews. The subjects aren’t even identified in onscreen subtitles. The viewer is simply dropped into the middle of their world, where Brian Henry, an impassioned volunteer youth worker and ex-con, uses a combination of humour, affection, nagging and tough love to keep kids in school and out of gangs. “Do you think life is going to be fair to you, black man?” he asks one rhetorically, with the exhaustion and vehemence of someone to whom life has rarely been just.

“I wanted to make a film in Toronto about an urban issue,” King says. As it turns out, social problems like poverty, discrimination and violence, which were once considered “urban issues,” have taken root in suburbs like Rexdale and Scarborough. Misguided urban planning has created pockets of low-income housing units that are neglected by city and social services, with few recreation centres, sports leagues or music programs to keep kids occupied. Despite his success and ingenuity at establishing a before-school breakfast program and a special eight-week math tutorial for struggling students, Henry can’t secure steady funding to get paid for his efforts.

King says he was purposely vague in identifying the community where the film was shot (EMPz is the neighbourhood’s nickname) because the area has already been “stereotyped in the media as nothing more than a crime spot... and the thing I found most attractive about EMPz is that it looked like any other suburb. Outside, a few of the houses are in disrepair; sometimes, that was just because it was co-op housing and there was some question as to who was responsible for upkeep. But you go inside the houses and they were comfortably furnished and well cared for. People are proud of their homes.”

Outside those homes, though, the young men are routinely humiliated by a heavy police presence. King’s crew captured a couple of incidents where Henry and fellow volunteers and their charges were stopped for simply “driving while black.” “The kids at the bottom of the heap, particularly the kids who are identified and stereotyped as the bad kids, get blamed,” King says. “They become the people that we can put our bad feelings into, that we can project fears onto.”

The toll that takes on the young men’s psyches is vividly revealed, particularly in the film’s despairing conclusion. No matter how bright these men are, how talented and how cherished by their families, they can’t transcend being defined by their race, their gender and their neighbourhood. No matter what he does, Henry says, “I’m just a nigger.”

“I didn’t want to make a film about guns,” King says. “The premise from the beginning has been, ‘What’s it like and what’s it feel like to be a kid in this situation?’ … The documentaries that I like doing best, and work best for me, are about feelings, not about narration, not about interviews. What does it feel like to be a black teenager in suburban Toronto? I wanted people who didn’t know that experience to see the world through these youngsters. The only point in making a film is to drop people into a place they’ve never been to before.”

EMPz 4 Life screens at TIFF Sept. 9 and 11. Radiant City screens Sept. 10 and 12.

Rachel Giese writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window.



More from this Author

Rachel Giese

Mad refuge
André Alexis's new novel Asylum finds sex and scandal in 1980s Ottawa
Eternal youth
Novelist Meg Rosoff explores her inner child
Talking back
Persepolis takes a brat's-eye view of Iran
Jumping off the page
2007: The year in books
Whoa, baby
Ellen Page and Diablo Cody deliver big laughs in Juno
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

World »

For Trump, being more 'presidential' could be a mistake video
American politics has, by now, heard about “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” But politicos are still waiting to get acquainted with “Presidential” Donald. That is, if he actually exists, Matt Kwong writes.
FBI paid less than $1 million to unlock iPhone of San Bernardino shooters
The FBI paid under $1 million for the technique used to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters - a figure smaller than the $1.3 million the agency's chief initially indicated the hack cost, several U.S. government sources said.
New Huge trove of Roman coins unearthed in Spain
Workers laying pipes in a southern Spanish park have unearthed more than half a tonne of Roman coins in what culture officials say is a unique historic discovery.
more »

Canada »

Blame Tinder, Grindr for the rise in sexually transmitted diseases? Not so fast
Alberta Health Services has suggested an outbreak in sexually transmitted diseases should be blamed on so-called hookup apps. But some experts say not enough research has been done to prove such a link.
Analysis Liberals won over Muslims by huge margin in 2015, poll suggests audio
A new survey suggests that the vast majority of Muslim Canadians voted for the Liberals in the last election, turning their backs on the Conservatives and helping secure a majority government for Justin Trudeau.
Bombardier bailout likely still needed despite Delta deal
With Bombardier's deal to sell its new C-Series jets to Delta Air Lines, one might think that the aerospace manufacturer no longer needs the billion dollars it is seeking from the federal government.
more »

Politics »

Analysis Liberals won over Muslims by huge margin in 2015, poll suggests audio
A new survey suggests that the vast majority of Muslim Canadians voted for the Liberals in the last election, turning their backs on the Conservatives and helping secure a majority government for Justin Trudeau.
Unpaid public servants told to ask for emergency cheques
A top civil servant overseeing the problem-plagued Phoenix payroll system is advising public servants who aren't getting paid properly to ask their departments to cut them emergency cheques. Brigitte Fortin also says progress is being made to fix bugs in the system and to provide better service.
Mike Duffy's expenses: 'The matter is closed,' senior senators say
Senator Mike Duffy won't have his expenses referred to the auditor general for review, according to two senior members of the powerful Senate administrative committee. "The matter is closed," the committee said Thursday.
more »

Health »

Sorry - we can't find that page
 
CBC.ca

Sorry, we can't find the page you requested.

  1. Please check the URL in the address bar, or ...
  2. Use the navigation links at left to explore our site, or ...
  3. Enter a term in the Quick Search box at top, or ...
  4. Visit our site map page

In a few moments, you will be taken to our site map page, which will help you find what you looking for.

more »

Arts & Entertainment»

Drake expands his empire with new album Views
He may have "started from the bottom," but Drake is well on his way to becoming Canada's first hip-hop mogul by expanding his empire through sponsorship, products and especially his own brand.
Canada's Dsquared2 outfitting Beyoncé on 'Formation' tour
Beyoncé is flying Canada's colours during her Formation tour as the pop superstar wears custom designs by homegrown duo Dsquared2.
MOVIE REVIEW Keanu features gun battles, thugs and an undeniably adorable cat, says Eli Glasner video
Keanu features gun battles, gangsters galore and, in the middle of it all, one ridiculously, undeniably adorable cat. The film debut of TV's Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele is not your typical action comedy.
more »

Technology & Science »

Blog New space telescope's giant gold mirror unveiled: Bob McDonald audio
The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble, will launch in 2018. But it will be too far away to be repaired, so everything has to go right, Bob McDonald writes.
New Huge trove of Roman coins unearthed in Spain
Workers laying pipes in a southern Spanish park have unearthed more than half a tonne of Roman coins in what culture officials say is a unique historic discovery.
FBI paid less than $1 million to unlock iPhone of San Bernardino shooters
The FBI paid under $1 million for the technique used to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters - a figure smaller than the $1.3 million the agency's chief initially indicated the hack cost, several U.S. government sources said.
more »

Money »

Canadian dollar hits 80 cents US
The Canadian dollar hit the 80-cent US mark minutes after North American stock markets opened for trading today.
Valeant restates earnings, names new board members
Valeant Pharmaceuticals has filed its long-overdue financial report for 2015, plus restated results for several quarters, resolving its default on some of its $30 billion in debt and averting other problems.
Canada's GDP shrank by 0.1% in February but beats expectations
Canada's economy shrank for the first time in five months in February, as the manufacturing, mining and energy sectors all slowed down.
more »

Consumer Life »

Sorry - we can't find that page
 
CBC.ca

Sorry, we can't find the page you requested.

  1. Please check the URL in the address bar, or ...
  2. Use the navigation links at left to explore our site, or ...
  3. Enter a term in the Quick Search box at top, or ...
  4. Visit our site map page

In a few moments, you will be taken to our site map page, which will help you find what you looking for.

more »

Sports »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Recap T.J. Oshie hat trick gives Capitals Game 1 win over Penguins video
T.J. Oshie completed a hat trick in overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night in a classic start to the highly anticipated second-round playoff series between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
Laremy Tunsil's Twitter video creates waves amongst fans
Laremy Tunsil's draft status plummeted after a video of someone smoking from a gas mask was released on his Twitter account. See how people reacted to the crazy news.
Profile Kia Nurse's influence extends beyond basketball video
Kia Nurse isn’t just a budding star on the basketball court. To many, the 20-year-old's early success is viewed as a launching pad to attracting young Canadian girls to the sport, just like Christine Sinclair's influence has stretched beyond the soccer pitch.
more »

Diversions »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
more »