In the past, documentary filmmakers making issue-oriented films that promoted social change had to pound the pavement to pull together activists, educators, and the average moviegoer, as well as tell an engaging story. But the web changed all that. A filmmaker can now reach a wide audience, provide a forum for discussion, direct viewers to organizations, and even make educational guides available online. But it’s not just the web’s inherent ability to promote social change that has filmmakers exploring its capabilities. As documentarian Liz Canner and political muralist John Ewing have discovered, the web is also a dynamic format to tell the story itself.
At the 2001 Boston Cyber Arts Festival, Liz Canner and John Ewing unveiled their multimedia documentary Symphony of a City (www.symphonyofacity.org) by streaming the site to the side of Boston’s City Hall for the night.
The documentary consists of eight juxtaposing videos exploring the lives of different Boston residents. Armed with a miniature camera and microphone mounted on eyeglasses, each resident takes the audience on a tour of their typical day. In an age of webcams and reality television, what could have been a mundane look at daily rituals turned into an enlightening view of how we treat or ignore our neighbors.
Boston is in the throes of a huge housing crises. Eighty-thousand low-income homes have been taken off the market since the removal of rent regulations in 1995. Deregulation created a housing shortage for low-income families and left a large homeless population in its vacuum. In an effort to address this situation Canner and Ewing asked various community organizations to nominate a representative to participate in the documentary. They chose eight different people from eight different backgrounds in eight different communities. The participants include a landlord, a man who is homeless, a textile artist, a lawyer representing tenants and community groups, a city councilman, a sixteen-year-old politician, a philanthropist, and a member of the Chinese Progressive Association. Side-by-side each of the residents invites the audience, and each other, to walk a day in their shoes. The goal is to create a “deeper understanding of the housing crisis, the diversity of the city, and how poverty affects your daily routine,” Ewing says. “People are walking around the city and they see someone homeless and they act like it’s normal. [We want] people to pause and stop and see how others live. People don’t get a chance to compare each other on such an intimate level.”
Though the documentary addresses a hot topic in many urban environments, the architecture of the online exhibition is what really brings the point home. By using two to four simultaneous QuickTime downloads, we can watch concurrent experiences of multiple residents on one screen. This design allows people to compare the subjects’ lives, see how they are treated, and get a feel for their environment. “We hoped that people would have a greater sense of the way people live in Boston,” Canner explains. One of the best examples is watching Mike Murray, a homeless man who attends the University of Massachusetts, as he goes through his morning routine, which includes taking the subway, going to McDonald’s, and sitting alone drinking coffee.
Simultaneously we can watch as John Coppola, a landlord, brushes his teeth, talks to his dog, and leaves his lush suburban home in a silver SUV. Canner points out that while watching these videos one realizes that “Mike Murray is always utilizing public space, while John Coppola is always in something he owns. There is a visual juxtaposition between them, and you can see it there.”
In an effort to place the viewer directly in the shoes of the subjects, the filmmakers worked closely with Harvard physicist Alex Barnett, adapting a miniature camera to fit onto eyeglasses. The lens is stationed on the right side of the eyeglass frames and is connected to a camera control unit (CCU) that the participants carried with them in a bag. The CCU was then connected to a mini-DV camera where everything was recorded onto tape. In addition, a lavalier microphone was attached to the left side of the eyeglasses to capture the subjects’ spoken reflections on their day’s events. This kind of hands-free, autobiographical filmmaking allows the subjects to have complete control over their representations. At the same time, it allows the audience to literally see their world. “We see what interests them, how they look at people, and even more importantly how people look at them,” Canner comments. Whereas one participant was constantly being fawned over, you see that there are others who are consistently ignored.
This kind of dynamic navigation through urban space pushes our perceptions of what documentary is. In addition to letting the audience decide who to watch and at what time of day to watch them, there is also an ongoing discussion where viewers can speak anonymously about the topics raised in the videos. The discussion board gives a voice to many of the marginalized residents who have been affected by the housing shortage. On other parts of the site, viewers can find out about the subjects and their lives as well as get information on Boston’s housing crisis.
The web’s ability to broadly disperse information and bring complete strangers together on a common theme has pushed watching documentaries from a passive experience to an active one. Mike Murray, the homeless university student, is the clearest example of that. “Mike got so much attention he realized that his experience was much more important that he thought. It validated his life in a big way, and people have asked him to speak,” Ewing says.
But helping the individual subject was not the only benefit of this project. Prior to the documentary most of the community groups in Boston were working independently of each other, but now they are taking steps to organize. The first step: To create a website to help tenants become aware of their rights.