In the first quarter of 2010 I was a film reader for the 12th Encounters Documentary Film Festival. What this meant was, although I was barely paid, I got to watch about fifty documentary films. Most of them were good and there was a fair number of brilliant films amongst them. My favourites include Housing by Federica di Giacomo, The Peddler by Lucas Marcheggiano, Eduardo de la Serna and Adriana Yurcovich, My Perestroika by Robin Hessman, Do Osadne by Marko Skop and Bottled Up by Luiza Faga. In no particular order, even though I have watched Housing three times already and enjoy it each time. None of my favourites made it into the Festival, but they are my favourites and well worth watching, I think.
So, then, there are many movies of the year for 2010, but if I were forced to choose I would have to go with Housing. In South Africa we face issues of housing on a daily basis that some South Africans have tired of hearing about them. When you’re a middle class South African in South Africa, the issue of people having roofs over their heads can appear to be a particularly South African one inherited from that albatross, apartheid, that hangs tirelessly around South African necks. Our understanding of the politics of housing is a particularly South African understanding. Even though there are white people, few, without roofs to call their own, one has to work hard to see it as a human rights issue and not a black issue, despite it being the direct result of apartheid policies. Not because South Africans do not see black people as human beings, but because we are thoughtlessly plagued by the notion that people are either one or the other. Although, at times this is not so thoughtless because the economic discrepancies that do exist in South Africa, exist along these colour lines and it is the starting point of trying to understand why things are the way they are.
On another level we are aware that there are housing issues all over the world, although we may not know them as intimately as our own. This is the power of documentary films, of brilliant documentary – they take you straight into a world you would not usually visit and show you ways of being you would otherwise not see. They make you exclaim to yourself – if not out loud to your fellow movie watchers – I didn’t know that!
The housing issue in Housing is also about a housing shortage and the failure of government to provide for the poor (the issue that governments allow there to be poor people is a topic for another day). The film’s angle, however, presents the people without houses as the menace. If you have a council house or a council flat in Bari you are fortunate because there are 20 000 families on a waiting list who do not have a house or a flat for themselves. If you have to leave your house or flat for a while, which, depending on your circumstances, may be three hours or a month, you may return to find that your home has been invaded by squatters who now call your home theirs. All the people we meet through the film are scared of losing their homes. As a result their movements are restricted, complicated and often odd.
In Housing the filmmakers had incredible access to their characters allowing us to see things that are almost surreal. We learn about the working class housing shortage in Bari through four main stories. There’s the forty-odd year old overweight man, who seems to be a loser. He is always moaning and he has nothing positive to say about anything. He is always wearing the same shirt and the one time he goes to the laundromat, he leaves while putting this shirt back on.
There’s the disabled woman with the disabled daughter, who threatens municipal and council staff that she will gas herself and her daughter if she is unable to do a house swop that allows her to move out of her current flat.
There’s the pensioner who never leaves her house, has her son-in-law deliver her groceries, has conversations with friends in neighbouring blocks by shouting across narrow concrete yards and has the hairdresser pay her a house visit.
Finally there’s the man in his late fifties or sixties with a girlfriend – who reminded me of a chihuahua – and whose relationship falters because of the housing situation.
What makes Housing brilliant is the decisions the filmmakers made. You could argue that we only get to see what the filmmakers want us to see and there’s a lot we don’t get to see. And your argument would be spot on. The filmmakers chose the scenes that would intrigue, engage and perplex us. It is these choices that hold you spellbound throughout the film. Yes, we never see the people who threaten the characters in the film, but we certainly learn to understand how the threat is perceived by our four heroes.
Anyone who holds up a camera when there are people around will know that when the camera appears people change. Some shy away from the camera, others are drawn to the camera and still others play to the camera. Through Housing you sometimes wonder whether the people in the film are playing to the camera and they may well be, but that doesn’t detract from the impact of the film. You will have this in any documentary film and sometimes it can be clear that people are playing for the camera and that makes you distance yourself from the person, but it doesn’t happen like this in Housing - you wonder and then you follow the story.
The way the story is cut together we are constantly hungry for more, hungry to see and to understand. We cannot know why the filmmakers made the choices they did – in order to know that we would have to have a conversation with them and perhaps know all the footage they shot. When we know all the footage, we may find ourselves making different choices, explaining the housing shortage differently. All we can know is whether we enjoyed the film or not.
It would make me happy if you got to see Housing and the other films in my list. But don’t do it for me, do it for yourself.