US life as we're not meant to see it

August 6, 1998

Public Housing
Produced and directed by Frederick Wiseman
Sydney International Film Festival

Review by Becky Ellis

Public Housing is a documentary about the life of residents of one of the poorest housing complexes in the United States: the Ida B. Wells project in Chicago. The housing complex, whose residents are predominantly African-American, is separated from the city by a six lane highway, an indication of the systematic racism rampant in the United States.

The documentary has no narration or background music, and the people in the film never address the camera. Instead, we watch normal activities taking place and listen in to telephone conversations and meetings. Several segments highlighting particular situations are intercut with scenes of people crossing the street, getting their hair done, talking with friends, gardening.

Public Housing gives insight into the way in which poor people re treated in a society that is also systematically racist. Every single program aimed at helping the residents is underfunded. The programs that are available are mere bandaid solutions that do nothing to solve anyone's problems.

We see several programs that are designed to help the residents: a meeting of the Men at Wells Group, a drug rehabilitation assessment interview, a residents' meeting with Community Housing Authority bureaucrats, a meeting of residents with the Child Family Preservation Centre, a discussion group of young people in the community.

These meetings give a clear idea of the differences between the way bureaucratic organisations and grassroots groups benefit or harm communities. The bureaucratic organisations offer little more than the individualistic attitude, "If you work hard, you will do well" — ignoring the fact that the vast majority of poor people work hard just to survive and have no opportunity to "create their own business", as a spokesperson from the CHA suggests.

The bureaucrats, instead of encouraging collective political action and awareness, encourage unrealistic faith in the government, the police and individual power.

In one after-school drug education program, the students are taught that police officers are their friends and are encouraged to report "naughty" classmates to the police. Never mind that police brutality, particularly against young African-American men, is a major problem in the United States.

Some of the groups run by residents offer a more hopeful outlook. The Men at Wells group and the discussion group of young people stood out particularly. The Men at Wells do things for the community such as organising excursions for the children and cleaning up the parks.

There are many scenes in which the police harass people who are hanging around the complex, searching them for drugs (which were, incidentally, never found). People are subject to humiliating body searches and questions about personal life and habits. State neglect of the complex is prevalent in all areas except when it comes to police.

The alienation felt by the residents in the neighbourhood was apparent. In one heart-wrenching scene an elderly man is evicted from his apartment by two police. The man has no relatives and very little money or belongings and is obviously distressed and confused.

In another scene, the president of the Ida B. Wells Advisory Council remarks exasperatedly that unemployed residents are "trained to death but never hired".

This is a powerful exposé of an often hidden side of life in the United States.

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