Sympathy Is Not Enough

in 21st Saguenay International Short Film Festival

by Gerald Peary

What was once seen as a noble humanist impulse, to record the lives of the downtrodden and misbegotten, has been put into question in recent years, dismissed as an act of condescension and cultural imperialism. What is more ignoble than the haves feeling good about themself because they feel bad about the plight of the have-nots? “Poverty porn” is the pejorative term in use these days, defined in 2009 by journalist Matt Collin as “any type of media, be it written, photographed, or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate …sympathy.”

Clearly, it’s important to be suspicious about the way images of the needy are utilized by those of privilege in the media. Yet it’s also absurd to regard every attempt at portraying the poor as a betrayal. Surely, there’s a difference between the hit-and- run approach of a television news crew and, say, the many months writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans lived with destitute Southerner sharecroppers, inspiring their classic tome, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. There’s a difference between a movie star adopting African children as a publicity move and John Steinbeck penning the magnificent The Grapes of Wrath.

Sympathy is not enough. Empathy is the minimum demand, and empathy can occur only over time, when the artist can lay claim to know and understand those who he/she is portraying. Perhaps there can never quite be a level playing field. Still, what is required is a genuine bond between the artist and those who are the subject of the art, a reciprocity, with everyone gaining by the exchange.

That’s a long way to say how much I admire Nils Caneele’s 16-minute documentary short, Une Autre, winner of the FIPRESCI award at the 2017 Saguenay International Short Film Festival. I was skeptical seeing yet another gone-slumming, potentially sensationalist film following a homeless man with a video camera. But what a homeless man! What a courageous survivor, escaping a horrific childhood with a sexual predator of a father. What a street hero, determined to keep going day after day, and to make his dreadful life almost bearable. And what a flawed human being, also destroying himself by his lust for crack cocaine.

Why do I, the audience, care for this unnamed screwed-up guy? Because Caneele, the filmmaker, feels for him so much. Clearly, they have spent countless hours hanging out together on the Montreal streets. I trust the trust between them, and the depth of their friendship.

What this street person gets is a chance to tell his story his way, and to have his dignity restored by a documentary which honors his presence. Perhaps there is something exhilarating to having 15 minutes of fame. The street person uses it wisely with this conducted tour of his existence, from his secret sleeping place below a movie theatre (he sits in the hallway and happily listens to movies!) to his spot on the street chosen as the best place to hustle money for his drugs.

Will he always be standing there? How poignant to hear of his serious plan–or self-deluded plan?– to give up the streets by age 40, to have a house and a car.

Nils Caneele is also something of an outlier, a transplant to Canada, a Frenchman who studied at the Sorbonne before settling in Quebec. I’ve watched a series of Caneele’s excellent short films on Vimeo. They are poetic, formally beautiful. The self-consciously elegant shooting is left behind for the grim tale of Une Autre. The cinematography is straight-forward, simple, keeping the protagonist center of the frame as he tells his absorbing story. The camerawork only wakes up in the expressionist moments when the street person takes his fetishized pod of crack cocaine out of its encasing and greedily smokes it. ”I’m light as a bird. I’m free,” he declares. Close-up on a face in the throws of ecstasy and then, a few seconds later, the face flattens and loses its energy, back to reality, to everyday travails and sadness. Hooked. “I want another and another.” “Another”: the mystery title of the film.

Gerald Peary lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, programs the Boston University Cinematheque, and reviews for the website, The Arts Fuse. He is the filmmaker of two feature documentaries, For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and acted in the American independent feature, Computer Chess.