Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 03, 2019 11:26 pm 
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In Englewood, in Chicago's predominantly black South Side, the segment from 57th Street to 61st Street is slated for elimination by the Norfolk Southern Railway for "intermodal" spaces, expanding an already large shipping yard for increasing railway freight transport - which is a good thing if it lessens the more ecologically destructive use of trucks. Nobody ever explains quite what "intermodal" means to the scattered black inhabitants of Inglewood. But the company buys the houses at cheap rates, relocates the people, knocks down the houses, clears them all away. Visual sociologist David Shalliol covers this process in The Area, his debut documentary feature, a slow, incremental film that quietly focuses on a few people. It is a portrait of poverty and race in America, the African American survival sprit, and the sadness of giving up one's longtime home, over and over again. It's also a portrait of Englewood resident and citizen activist Deborah Payne, a woman of indomitable energy and courage. She knows she cannot stop this process of relocation, but what she can do is fight to see that no one's dignity is destroyed.

This is also a portrait that shows both the strength of spirit and the economic, social, and political fragility of these same South Side residents. Deborah has a stroke and is in the hospital, but comes out and is as vigorous as ever. She is one of the last to leave. One woman complains that she was duped into not paying her mortgage for two months to enable the process to go through and then found that had damaged her of her credit for a new mortgage, so she had to become a renter. This is the fate of people who are powerless because they are poor and on top of that lack the education and knowledge to fight lawyers and bureaucratic complications. But having struggled all their lives they are also strong.

We hear about how this had become a terrible neighborhood, and there are signs of blight and already many missing houses. But it still has a quiet suburban feel, with pockets of gentility and dignity. A couple of young guys hang out together who are survivors of gang banging and shootouts. One of them, Weezy, is paralyzed from the waist down from bullet wounds but later, he leads police on a high speed chase, driving with a stick. There's indomitability in that too. The cops take their phones out to snap photos, wondering. Weezy goes to jail for three years but is out in two, relocated, as feisty as ever, but wiser.

Deborah gets a big place in an apartment building but says she asks herself if she is lonely. However she is active with a new group of "wonderful women" against sexual harassment and for breast cancer awareness, striving to stay healthy so it can "not be all about me."

These are people and another is a man of a certain age who fought to keep his mother in her house till the end because, since she had dementia, he explains that such people's souls hang by a thread, and changing their surroundings severs that thread. He was able to keep her dignity for her till the end. And then, he could let the house go. These are lessons in what maters in life.

A memorable scene is when winter comes and it snows after many of the houses have been torn down and carted away. Deborah walks around in a bright yellow winter coat talking and savoring the beauty, and sadness, of the transformed place which, garbed in snow, looks like country.

There are also city board meetings, even one with a dead-eyed Rahm Emmanuel, Mayor of Chicago, where the meaningless declarations of various officials, coming after we have thoroughly absorbed the viewpoint and situation of the Engleside residents, come dripping in unintentional irony. The politicians' ill-formed sentences don't even make sense; they're just a ritual to plaster over the inevitable and the predetermined - when you are poor.

The Area is a slow-building documentary that carries more emotional and intellectual weight that you realize at first. Toward the end especially there are long fades to black, appropriate because is this not the story of people and a place dying over and over but then slowly coming back? But the houses don't come back or the many contents lost with them, and over and over we see houses bulldozed and their residents watching and weeping.

Shalliol is also an accomplished still photographer and the film is informed by his handsome still photographs of the beautiful, doomed old wood frame and brick buildings of "The Area." His film was the biproduct of docoral studies in sociology at the University of Chicago. For further details about him and the film see an article by Andrea Gromvall in Chicago Reader.

David Schalliol slide show.

The Area, 93 mins., debuted 6 April 2018 at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Durham, North Carolina. It was screened for this review as part of SF Indiefest, 30 Jan.-14 Feb. 2019.

SF IndieFest: THE AREA: Upcoming Showtimes
February 10 12:30 PM SF IndieFest at the Roxie


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