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Bums' Paradise (2003)

7.3
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Bums' Paradise depicts the lives of the men and women who lived in the ten-year-old Albany Landfill community prior to their eviction. It follows them through the eviction and documents ... See full summary »

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Bums' Paradise depicts the lives of the men and women who lived in the ten-year-old Albany Landfill community prior to their eviction. It follows them through the eviction and documents them one month after the eviction. The film emphasizes their concepts of community as well as the amazing art that they created. Instead of being a documentary about homelessness, Bums' Paradise considers the question: What if the homeless -- the indigent, the bums -- told their own stories? Written by Tomas McCabe & Andrei Rozen

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29 March 2003 (USA)  »

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The Subject-Reflexive Mode
25 April 2007 | by (San Francisco, CA) – See all my reviews

Tomas McCabe and Andrei Rozen seek to study the lives of homeless people who have taken refuge on an abandoned island-like landfill in Albany, California in BUMS' PARADISE (2003). The film tracks the individuals who reside on the landfill, develops their personalities and displays their shack-like homes, artwork, thoughts, and concepts of community. As this information is conveyed, viewers watch footage directly taken by one of the residents of the landfill, Rabbit. Viewers hear his voice and form a relationship with him and it is assumed that what is seen is Rabbit's perspective, given the intermingling commentary he provides from behind the camera. It is Rabbit's interaction with his fellow "residents" and his observations that jump-start the viewer's interest and keep it running. Within a mishmash of performative, reflexive, and participatory documentary film-making,* Rabbit compiles a document of what life is like for homeless people on an abandoned landfill. He documents what life is like for HIM on an abandoned landfill.

Yes, the film is about homeless people, but it is also about what happens when these people tell their own stories. What if people who lived in Nazi concentration camps were given cameras to document their experiences? Would the perspective be the same if, say, German (Nazi) filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl took the footage? Probably not. When the opportunity of articulation is extended to people other than the filmmaker, the viewer can expect a great deviation from what might be portrayed if the filmmaker shot the footage himself. Obviously, Riefenstahl never lived and suffered behind the fence of a concentration camp; her perspective would be radically different from the actual prisoners that might have taken this footage.

Similarly, in BUMS' PARADISE, McCabe and Rozen, as far as the viewer knows, have not lived lives of homelessness and are thus incapable of honestly exacting the essence of homelessness. McCabe/Rozen can sympathize and try to understand but will always fall short of ENTIRELY understanding. The film would have been how McCabe and Rozen, two non-homeless filmmakers view homelessness, versus how Rabbit, a homeless man, views himself. We clearly see the benefit of the latter: the audience is completely brought into Rabbit's realm, an act that transcends Rabbit from passive subject to filmmaker. It might be compared to a home video taken on a family camping trip. The "filmmaker" is mom, dad, or big uncle Jerry -- reality is captured as it unfolds. The camera, in this case, is not used for the purpose of presenting a deep, ethnographic study on the life of a family and the unraveling of a camping trip, but is simply filming. Likewise, Rabbit is simply filming, pure, unadulterated and free-flowing. Although McCabe and Rozen might have a preconceived agenda in making a film on homelessness (prompting the viewer's awareness of the suffering, injustice and poverty of these individuals) the viewer must remember McCabe/Rozen have not directly captured all of the images. They are nonexistent in their film and remembered within the glimmer of a fly's eye as it crawls up the wall of an adjacent bum's shack (albeit the editing room).

When this "subject-reflexive" mode of documentary film-making is juxtaposed with the traditional documentary that solely relates visuals from the perspective of the filmmaker, we see the great benefit of McCabe and Rozen's approach. For example, in Robert Flaherty's NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922) a depiction of an Inuit family doing normal Inuit things is highlighted. Flaherty does not hand the camera to the father of the family and protagonist of the film, Nanook, but remains behind the camera capturing each shot himself. The viewer's perspective is Flaherty's and the subjects are seen as Flaherty sees them. While there could be great value in Flaherty's rendering of Inuit life, viewers must remember the images were taken and put together by Flaherty -- a living, feeling soul with a unique viewpoint. This viewpoint will inevitably trickle into the viewfinder, reflecting Flaherty's view of the Inuit life. His view might be correct, or it might be false, but one thing is for sure: it is Flaherty's (this viewpoint is also seen in Flaherty's covert manipulation of the shots and the settings he placed Nanook in). What would have happened if Nanook, like the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp, took the camera? Would NANOOK OF THE NORTH be the same film as we know it today? Would the audience's relationship with Nanook change?

When the filmmaker chooses to give her subject the camera, she allows the audience to understand her film in a completely different light. It is not entirely her film, but her subject's. In this case the subject is our guide who forms our understandings. Watching documentary film causes viewers to displace their viewpoint with the filmmaker's as it is subconsciously accepted that the way things are shown might not have been the same if the viewers themselves chose to make a film on the given subject. But when what is seen is viewed from the perspective of the subject, our growth and understanding as individuals achieve a new height in relation to what is seen. Not only do we see it from another perspective absent from the filmmaker, we see it standing in the very shoes of the ones we are watching, peering through a vantage point riddled with much human familiarity. If documentary film-making is a mode used to convey a certain conception of truth, then, by all means, let us give this truth a voice, a life and ability to form a perspective. Let us give it a movie camera, a place in the credits and the power to observe, criticize, and comment on itself as an observation.

*For a discussion of the various modes of documentary film-making, see Bill Nichols' Introduction to Documentary, 2001


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