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.

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BlankBooks

Shop front

Blank Books is a second hand bookshop that’s open on Saturdays from 9h00 until 15h00. No, the pages of the books aren’t blank – the owner’s surname is, however, Blank. He is also a friend of mine. He won’t mind if, when you visit his establishment, you throw around some puns about his surname, like, “Did you draw a blank when trying to think of a name for the shop?” No, he will most likely join in and up the punning ante.

I finally went and spent my birthday book voucher at Blank Books this Saturday. I was told that it was the first book voucher that Blank Books issued. It was issued before the shop was opened and it was issued before the web site was completed. I was told that this was because my boyfriend had worked on the web site. I was surprised and said, “I thought it was because I was your friend.” The proprietor responded, “Yes, that too.”

Blank Books shares the space with a gallery-cum-photographic studio and you’re allowed to take food, drinks and dogs inside.

I will be preserving my birthday book voucher for when Blank Books is the only bookshop around. I told this to the proprietor and he said, “… the biggest bookshop around.” I insisted, however, “The only bookshop around.” When it is the only bookshop around, I will be able to sell the first Blank Books book voucher on the equivalent of whatever ebay becomes for googles of the strongest currency around.

Inside the shop

I am reading Terry Eagleton presents Jesus Christ The Gospels. The meat of the book is found in the Introduction and Note on the Text. The rest of the book is The Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and may be found in any Bible near you. The version of The Gospels translation used here, Terry Eagleton explains, is the New Revised Standard Version, which

is the academic translation of choice for university theology and probably the most widely authorized among churches.

Of course this version of The Gospels comes with footnotes that explain some of the issues raised in the introduction.

I have to confess, despite not being born into the Catholic tradition, that I have not read the Bible. I tried in my early teens, but I didn’t get it. I have been told by S that the biblical text is rather poetic, but I have not yet stumbled upon such instances, or I haven’t noticed them.

One thing I did notice on my current exploration of The Gospels however, was this in Mark chapter 11:

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. 12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. 15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

If you, like me, suffer from sudden sugar lows you too may have recognised what I recognised in this story. Jesus was hungry. He had not eaten for a while and had become ratty. This happens to me, too, when my blood sugar levels drop and I become single-mindedly focused on food. It makes me wonder whether, had Jesus eaten, or had there been figs on that tree, would the story have unfolded as it did? Would he have driven out all the traders?

That’s it.

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