I’m editing a documentary entitled “Cabrini Gone Green” for visual artist Michele Stutts’ upcoming exhibition of the same title. The documentary concerns one of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects, which was first built in 1942 with several additions built in the surrounding area over the years. Cabrini Green is notorious partly because it is located less than a mile from one of the city’s most affluent neighborhood, and because of its location, it became a hotbed of racial and economical tension. Since 2006, the building began to come down, forcing the residents to move out to other Section 8 housing.
The city was building new mixed-used developments on the demolished sites of Cabrini Green, the new development mandates 10% of the new building will be rented out to Section 8 residents. In the meantime, the Section 8 holders find it increasingly difficult to maintain their status, and if they cannot keep the status, they will have to pay full rent for new apartments. This is the premise of the documentary.
As for my personal feelings, since it is my first formal documentary work, I’m finding it harder and harder to narrow down their voices to just one. Would I even want to? It would seem like a dictatorship.
Growing up, I loved watching feature-length documentary. Steve James’s “Hoop Dreams” (which is partially set in Cabrini), Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, and Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March.” All of those films have one thing in common: a unified voice. In other words, the filmmakers know what they want, and they can manipulate the footage to get it across.
The problem is, I don’t know what I want to get across, or more accurately, the message I want to get across may not be the most flattering one. After reviewing 18 tapes that I didn’t shoot, I began to find that voice in two of the subjects. Mrs. Landry and Mrs. Wilson, both over 70 years old, talked about their memories of living in the projects. I liked hearing them reminisce from the time they moved in and how the area has changed over the years. They don’t want to move out, not because they couldn’t find a new home, but because they truly love the neighborhood.
Then there is Mr. Randolf, 40 years old, who was born in the projects and is now some sort of community leader. One moment recalls him talking about the fact that the new apartments cannot provide them with a 4-bedroom apartment. Understanding that Section 8 status holders pay somewhere around $500 a month for a 4-bedroom apartment, it is harder to sympathize. To make matters more muddled, many Section 8 holder’s children and relatives move in with them, taking advantage of the deals they’ve got. Those who moved in illegally may not be able to apply for the status for reasons including having criminal records.
Part of me wants to reveal all the contradictions and focus on all the hypocrisy, but part of me feels like it’s kicking someone when they’re down. I cannot change the reality: This is going to happen whether we make this documentary or not, but do I really have to paint unflattering pictures of the project residents? Since this is my first time in the editor’s seat, I’m overwhelmed by the moral responsibilities that come with the job. Kuleshov can make the viewer believe that a man is sad, hungry, or lustful just by placing different footage immediately following the face of the man. But when it concerns something as consequential as real people, how does one find a firm ground to stand on?
~Chris Lin, two-time contributor, long-time follower of L.I.P.
What do you think, K? Have any thoughts from your own film production experience? I'll respond to your questions very soon.