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Home is a documentary that follows an African American woman and her family over the course of several months as she seeks to move out of her stereotypical dangerous gang and drug-laden ghetto neighborhood by buying a house in more of a middle class area (or, as her daughter puts it, “It’s on a white people street”), enormously discounted due to an arrangement with a nonprofit group and government money. It is a house that would otherwise have a market value of approximately $225,000, but the purchase price for her would be only about $125,000. Plus, there’s no down payment, no closing costs or other fees, and a monthly payment of only $600. About the only thing she has to do over the course of these months to make it happen is pay off the debts that show up as delinquent on her credit report, which total $3,000-$4,000.

You also spend some time in the movie getting to know the woman at the nonprofit organization that she’s mostly working with to get this house, hearing her talk about why she does what she does, seeing them interacting with each other, etc. There are other auxiliary characters–the ex-husband, friends, certainly the children–but primarily you watch events unfold by following these two women through the process.

This isn’t a super polished, professional documentary. It has the feel of a top end student film.

That being said, I was quite impressed by it, and have almost all good things to say about it.

I liked it from the opening sequence. I thought the visuals that were selected for that opening, and the way they were edited together, were very effective. It is done in a style–some fast motion, odd camera angles, quick cuts, etc.–that sometimes is a little too artsy and unnecessarily showy to me compared to a more straightforward simple approach, but for whatever reason I liked the way it was done here. It definitely establishes the mood and the context.

After that, in the body of the film, is where it has somewhat more of an amateur feel. Handheld camera, cuts that aren’t always real smooth, etc. Indeed, at times the audio is only about midway between what I get in my films with a camcorder and rudimentary editing, and what you expect from a “real” movie. In some scenes, for instance, you have to strain to hear the interviewer, because the subject is wearing a lapel mike and evidently the interviewer behind the camera is not.

But it’s not like the technical stuff is distractingly bad. It just is a reminder that this wasn’t a huge budget project, and it made me sympathetic to the way the filmmaker had to deal with some of the same kinds of problems and limitations I face.

But substantively, I thought this was quite well done. It was very real, which is what I want out of this kind of documentary. The way the main character was presented was just right. She was the exact opposite of a stereotype or a symbol. She was way too flawed and her family too dysfunctional to qualify as the “noble poor,” while at the same time being much too sympathetic a character and doing too much that is good and admirable to resemble the picture of poor people painted by horrible individuals like Ronald Reagan.

Instead, she’s a complex, real person. She’s very responsible about a lot of things. At times she’s quite likable and funny–I laughed out loud at her assessment of her interaction with a bail bondsman, for instance. But she’s also clearly made some irresponsible decisions in her life, and there are things about her and her family–call it cultural differences if you want to be relativist about it–that to me aren’t admirable at all.

The most striking of these is the acceptance of violence. She nonchalantly admits to beating her fourteen year old daughter with a belt and her fists, and while she is concerned pragmatically speaking about the potential consequences when state agencies and law enforcement get involved, at no point does she show any remorse or any awareness that there could be anything the least bit questionable about what she did. In her world, imposing your will on someone by beating it into them is just the way things are done, and is totally acceptable as long as a) you are legitimately in a position of authority over the person (as a parent and a child) and b) it is for the person’s own good (which obviously she would say applies here to her disciplining her daughter).

And when the children are interviewed, you can see that in terms of mental, emotional, social development, they’re many years behind their peers raised in less inhumane environments.

So again, these aren’t the “undeserving poor” refusing to work, looking for handouts, exploiting ill-conceived do-gooder programs, etc., and they’re also not the “deserving poor” who if only you stop oppressing them for five minutes and throw them a break they will turn out to be mature, responsible, upstanding citizens from that point on.

Indeed, one of the themes that develops in the film is how she has a certain reluctance about changing her life after all. For a while you think it’s just a matter of purely practical issues, like will she be able to come up with enough money in time to satisfy her creditors to clear her credit report and get the house, but then you realize that’s she’s really only sort of trying to do what needs to be done. She understands how bad it is to be where they are and how it’s damaging her children, but at the same time, this is what she knows. Just like someone used to abusive relationships might be intimidated by the idea of having to switch over to living the way people in non-abusive relationships live, and so might keep falling back into the patterns she’s used to and comfortable with that leave her where she is.

At times you want to grab this woman and shake her and tell her that people are handing her a better life on a silver platter if she’d just take it, but the inability to “take it” and improve oneself is precisely one of the damaging consequences that can ensue from being beaten down and warped by a crappy life.

There’s actually considerable suspense throughout the movie as to whether this house thing is even going to happen, and if it doesn’t to what extent it’ll be her fault.

But this is why I believe this is not only a well-made documentary, but an important one. You can argue back and forth all you want about poverty and social programs and such on ideological and political grounds. But it’s really valuable to also have the ground-level perspective, to spend enough time with the people to get to know them as flesh and blood individuals, to observe the intended and unintended consequences of policies and programs, etc. People who are going to work in community organization, government, etc. need to see precisely this kind of material if they want to understand what works and what doesn’t, why it works or why it doesn’t, how it would need to be tinkered with to make it work better, and so on.

A couple other points worth mentioning:

The woman from the nonprofit who facilitates getting people into these homes is a pretty darn heroic individual. Watch the film for the specifics, but this is a person who devotes her life to doing good, even when doing so requires courage and substantial self-sacrifice.

I had kind of mixed feelings about her style. I don’t know that I would call it patronizing, but she was kind of a “bottom line” business person type who when she was “on duty” was all about “Let’s just do what it takes to get people to do what they need to do.” Like when the woman was expressing ambivalence about paying off her creditors and wanting to justify herself and talk about the merits of her position, the woman from the nonprofit’s approach was to brush that off and just stick to “Here’s what you have to do; you have to pay it off” and to get her to focus on that.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it just put me in mind of a school counselor deciding in advance that what’s right for the student is to stop cutting class, and not wanting to delve into the student as an individual or the merits of the specific situation. “I need you to just do this. I know best.”

But still in all, a really, really admirable woman.

Also, another thing I appreciated about the film is that it was unusually straightforward in style for a documentary. Documentaries are routinely very fancy and impressionistic, jumping around from place to place and time to time and idea to idea. This film pretty much told an understandable story in chronological order. I don’t know what that says about it as art, but that style is very much to my liking.

A lot of times, as indicated by some of what I’ve said about other films, I’m troubled when there seems to have been little “point” to watching a movie, like “How is the world a better place because this movie exists?” Many would contend that there’s no obligation for a movie to be uplifting or have some kind of objective merit to it, that the fact that a huge number of people willingly fork over their money to see Batman or whatever is sufficient justification in itself for a movie’s existence. But I expect more.

And this documentary is a good example of that “more.” It facilitates your knowing more and feeling more about the kind of people and the kind of lives that you might not have a lot of experience with, and that’s valuable.

Highly recommended.

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