Stephanie Luna interned with America ReFramed in 2017 summer program.

The documentaries that are a part of POV and America ReFramed demonstrate how filmmaking can be combined with social issues to portray honest and real stories of people around the world. Though I did not have much experience with films before my internship at America ReFramed, I became interested in documentaries and how they can be used to tell stories about people and neighborhoods when I watched the HBO Documentary Class Divide. This documentary discusses the income inequality in the Chelsea neighborhood in New York City through the perspectives of the residents of a public housing building, as well as the students who attend an elite private school right across the street from this housing. This was the first time since I started studying Urban Sociology that I saw a documentary that addresses urban challenges, so I wanted to learn more about the intersection between Urban Sociology and documentary filmmaking.

The first time I watched this documentary it was simply as a viewer with little knowledge about the process of filmmaking or documentaries in general. Because of this, I mainly focused on the emotional aspects of the story and just listened to what the characters were saying. Throughout my internship with America ReFramed, I learned how to view a documentary from a more critical standpoint. My experience with America ReFramed taught me to view film from a different perspective and consider aspects of filmmaking that go beyond simply what is shown on screen, and instead consider why the filmmaker chooses to show what ends up being seen, what techniques are used to get information across to the audience, and how this information is altered through the methods chosen. This was particularly important to me as I compared the information portrayed in documentaries about urban life and urban issues with the topics about Urban Sociology I was learning in school, as well as my own experiences living in an urban space.

America ReFramed has a variety of documentaries that discuss urban issues from a social, historical, or economic perspective. These films share the stories of people and neighborhoods across the United States as they deal with urban challenges in their communities. Three particular films from America ReFramed that discuss similar issues relating to urban redevelopment and housing are 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green, My Brooklyn, and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Though an obvious difference among these three documentaries is the setting of the film: Chicago, New York City, and St. Louis, respectively, the perspective the filmmaker chooses to show and the characters represented in the films change the narrative completely.

70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green (2014) by Ronit Bezalel discusses the demolition of Cabrini Green, a public housing building in Chicago, and the construction of mixed-income condominiums in its place. This film addresses urban redevelopment and public housing through the lens of the people who live in this neighborhood, the people who are displaced, and the people who are moving in.

The filmmaker uses a mixture of pathos and historical information to discuss the social issues prevalent in Chicago. This film primarily consists of interviews to emphasize the opinions of residents ranging from the youth to people who have lived in Cabrini Green for years. This technique allows the audience to quickly learn about the characters and form a connection with them. By using the voice of the residents to describe the problems being faced, the film evokes an emotional connection with the audience that may otherwise be missing if the story was told from the point of view of an outsider.

For instance, the narrator of the documentary mentions the racial segregation of an area in Chicago in the 1940s called “Little Sicily” where people were displaced and Cabrini Green was built in its place. This narration is supplemented by black and white footage of the area. However, in order to go beyond simply relaying this information to the audience, the film also includes interviews with residents that parallel the historical context shown. For example, a person in the film discusses the class segregation that residents face due to the different set of institutions for public housing—this includes a separate police department and garbage collectors. This duality of narration and interviews works to not only create an emotional connection with the characters, but also to contemporize the issues and point out how these social issues from the 1940s and 50s were prevalent throughout the 15 years when the documentary was made, and they are still prevalent today.

My Brooklyn (2012) by Kelly Anderson discusses the gentrification in the Fulton Mall area of Brooklyn, and its detrimental effect on small businesses in that area. The filmmaker addresses how income inequality and race play a part in gentrification by focusing on her own experiences and the impact she had on the neighborhood when she moved to New York City.

Though the filmmaker focuses on her own role in the changing neighborhood, she also includes photographs, music, and maps as visuals to create a narrative and describe Brooklyn. By starting the documentary with a mixture of hip-hop music and various photographs of the people and buildings of Brooklyn throughout a few years, Kelly Anderson creates an image of Brooklyn that corresponds to her statement of the neighborhood changing and being depicted as a “hip, expensive brand.”

Additionally, throughout the film there is a map of Brooklyn that highlights the areas of Brooklyn that Anderson has lived in. This map is a useful visual to not only help viewers understand the dynamics of Brooklyn neighborhoods, but also to allow the filmmaker to reflect on her presence in both a contemporary and historical sense. After a historical explanation of changes in the economy and public policies that instigated urban housing issues and the displacement of people, Anderson states, “I know my presence helped fuel that pain.” By incorporating her voice directly into the documentary, the filmmaker is able to offer a unique perspective and acknowledgement of the changes in housing, businesses, and demographics, as well as a call for advocacy.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) by Chad Freidrichs discusses the historical background of urban renewal and housing issues in St. Louis, particularly by concentrating on the creation and destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing development. The film focuses on both the residents of Pruitt-Igoe as they face rapid de-industrialization and segregation by class and race, as well as the perception of outsiders and critics of public assistance programs.

The filmmaker primarily uses a voice over of a narrator in order to provide historical context of urban redevelopment. This not only allows the audience to focus on the information and learn new things, but it also helps the filmmaker. By having a narrator, the filmmaker is able to communicate a lot of information in regards to urban renewal, de-industrialization, segregation, and public policies in a short amount of time. In this way, the filmmaker can teach the audience about a historical perspective of the economic and social atmosphere in St. Louis that eventually led to the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe.

Additionally, the filmmaker’s inclusion of photographs showing torn down buildings, broken windows, and lack of people demonstrate the social issues occurring throughout St. Louis. For instance, the photographs of broken windows and scattered glass highlight and support the broken-windows theory in which a community that shows signs of crime, violence, and lack of care such as broken windows that are not fixed, perpetuates crime and violence. Though the theory is not directly discussed, the visuals shown emphasize the stereotypes of public assistance programs that the filmmaker addresses. Additionally, the lack of people and businesses shown in other photographs highlight the declining population due to mass suburbanization that was occurring in St. Louis in the 1950s—a challenge that St. Louis faces to this day.

To learn more about urban challenges in cities around the world, visit 100 Resilient Cities and look out for encore broadcasts of these films on America ReFramed.

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AMERICA REFRAMED is a co-production of the WORLD Channel and American Documentary, Inc. AMERICA REFRAMED curates a diverse selection of films highlighting innovative and artistic approaches to storytelling from emerging and veteran filmmakers alike. Viewers will be immersed in personal stories from the streets of towns big and small to the exurbs and country roads that span the spectrum of American life. The documentaries invite audiences to reflect on topics as varied as culture, health care, politics, gun violence, religion and more. An award-winning documentary series, AMERICA REFRAMED is the recipient of an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism and a George Foster Peabody Award. The series has earned several Christopher, GRACIE, Telly and Cine Golden Eagle Awards, as well as nominations for an EMMY, Independent Documentary Association, and Imagen Award.