Programme Notes: Down and Out In America

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“Documentaries tear open people’s lives. Those are moments in time that are the truth.”
Lee Grant

Land of Opportunity? Where? Someone show me where this Land of Opportunity is

Lee Grant already had a successful career in Hollywood when she first decided to pick up a camera. This sideways move, from glamorous acting career to maker of gritty documentaries, was spurred on by a political awakening which stemmed from painful personal experience. In 1951, Grant made her film acting debut in Detective Story and was immediately nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Grant was young and precociously talented but her promising career was soon derailed when she was caught in the anti-communist purges of the period, blacklisted and left unable to work in Hollywood for 12 years. When she was finally able to return to acting Grant bounced back spectacularly with memorable roles in hits such as In the Heat of the Night (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Shampoo (1975). Nevertheless, she never forgot the frustration of this time, and when Grant began directing that sense of outrage and injustice would inform much of her work.

Grant began to make the transition from acting to film directing in the mid-1970s, when she took part in the American Film Institute’s Inaugural Directing Workshop for Women. The A.F.I. workshop was an attempt to address the paucity of women directors working in Hollywood at this time and Grant was included alongside several other prominent women, including fellow actors Ellen Burstyn and Lily Tomlin, and the writer Maya Angelou. The workshop allowed these women to form new connections and learn practical filmmaking skills, but despite this advocacy, and the already high profile of many of the participants, deeply entrenched Hollywood sexism meant most never went on to make more than a few shorts or a first feature.

Grant however was an exception. By 1980, she had directed a narrative feature, Tell Me a Riddle, which screened in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, and soon afterwards, she completed her first documentary The Willmar 8 (1981) about a group of striking female bank workers in Minnesota. She went on to make a number of documentaries across the next decade, all of which addressed pressing social issues, including female incarceration in When Women Kill (1983), transgender experience in What Sex Am I? (1985) and domestic abuse in Battered (1989). Down and Out in America (1986) tackles poverty and homelessness in the US and is one of the most affecting of Grant’s documentaries. Over the course of an hour Grant offers a wide ranging exploration of this huge topic, crisscrossing the country to tell a series of stories, from farmers in Minnesota facing foreclosure, to a makeshift homeless community in Los Angeles, to displaced New York families in welfare hotels. Grant challenges stereotypes about the kind of people who become homeless, linking these intimate human stories to wider structural issues. The “down and outs” who Grant introduces in the opening voiceover are revealed to span class, race, age and geographic boundaries. The point is clear, these people could be any one of us; all it takes is a twist of fate for the bottom to fall out of the American dream.

Although she is clearly driven by an activist's desire to address big social issues, Grant never loses sight of the humans at the centre of this struggle, and as a result the characters we meet, and the stories they tell, stay with us. Down And Out begins with a focus on the crisis facing farmers “the backbone of America,” who are losing their family businesses at an alarming rate in the face of rising production costs and static food prices. In the rural heartland of Minnesota, Grant introduces us to Bob Hanson, who is facing the imminent loss of a farm which has been in his family for two centuries. “This is our life, it’s part of us,” says Hanson, stoic in front of the camera but with clear emotion in his voice. “The dirt and us belong together… it’s the life we know.” Elsewhere farmers are attempting to organise, mobilising against the banks who they feel are holding them to ransom with unfair loans. “They call us violent and militant for standing up at these rallies,” says one farmer, “but to me they ought to re-define violence, because to me it’s violent to put people out on the street, to put them out of their home.” Yet, for all their conviction, the acts of resistance we see in the film fail. The farmers are losing their struggle, powerlessly watching their communities crumble.

By the end of the film we are with another family, with a very different backstory, who are already stuck in a cycle of homelessness and poverty. In New York City, Grant introduces us to Bruce, Cathy and their five children, “a family in the process of disintegration,” who lost their home and all their possessions when their apartment burnt down. Now living in a squalid welfare hotel amongst mice and leaks, they are sinking into drug addiction and might lose custody of their children. In one powerful scene, Grant follows the family to their burnt out former apartment where they gaze at the wreckage of their life. Grant is a gentle but probing interviewer, who often asks questions others might not dare or even think to. When she asks Cathy how this experience is affecting her marriage, the answer is heartbreaking. “It’s gotten hostile,” she says, looking on in blank resignation. “The sweetness is gone.”

At the time of first release Grant’s work had a reasonable profile. Her films screened on national television, and Down and Out was the joint winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1986. In subsequent decades, her work has been less widely seen, but as this GFF retrospective demonstrates she still has much to say to today. Grant’s terminology, and the occasionally rough and ready eighties aesthetic may feel a little dated, but these are small details which shouldn’t distract from the many, still timely truths which lie at the heart of these films. Down and Out’s depiction of the plight of the rural poor immediately conjures the shadow of Trump, who decades later would capitalise on the long legacy of disenfranchisement that Grant captures here through his toxic, “make America great again” rhetoric. As we live through the current cost of living crisis, Grant’s discussion of hungry children and hidden homelessness is horribly relevant. Rewatching it today, we might find ourselves asking the same question that Cathy poses at the end of Down and Out: “Land of Opportunity? Where?”

Invisible Women
2 February 2023

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