Toronto International Film Festival 2006

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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.

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