Review: Vancouver: No Fixed Address and Miss Kiet's Children at DOXA

DOXA Documentary Film Festival runs from Thursday, May 4 to Sunday, May 14. We'll be giving you a preview taste of what this year's festival has to offer, highlighting a few of our top picks.

Film still from Vancouver: No Fixed Address

Film still from Vancouver: No Fixed Address

Three years ago I moved to Vancouver and now, three years later, I only remember how extravagantly underprepared I was. I remember scanning fields of Craigslist ads for an affordable place to rent; the line-ups that doubled and re-doubled back along themselves, the short apartments that required ducking and expert balance and smelled like burnt feet and urine. My competition were other students, mainly, and I distinctly remember the look they’d share when they left the viewing—it was a look that wondered: “can I afford to live without a stovetop”, or “can I live without windows”, or “can I live a few hours away from work,” which was all just another way of wondering: “am I really going to stoop this fucking low?” Luckily, I knew someone.

Now that I’ve lived in Vancouver a few years, I know the frequency of this story. This story about the struggle to find a home is a right of passage here, and—in an odd, paradoxical way—it’s the social glue that holds the city of Vancouver together. Unlike the cost of whisky, or the unfairness of a landlord, housing prices affect everyone; they define our collective identity as much as radical leftism and David Suzuki did in previous decades. A blessing and a curse, it means that “rezoning” and “laneway houses” and “off-shore investment” are part of our general vocabulary, and that everyone is feeling the slow lobster boil. The question is: What do we do? 

Vancouver: No Fixed Address doesn’t necessarily answer that question, but it does give us a framework to try to understand how we might be able to. A documentary about where we’ve been and where we’re going, No Fixed’s great accomplishment is putting so many voices in the same ring—it features interviews of economists and activists, mayors and anarchists, politicians and bungie jumpers, family men and hippies, all of whom are trying to figure out—what now?

What’s immediately uplifting about No Fixed is that the interviewees all agree on Vancouver’s basic problems. There are no accusations of alternative facts, and there’s no feeling that two thinkers are approaching an entirely different set of issues. Generally there’s agreement on the problems—e.g./i.e. rising housing prices, growing homelessness, a shrinking “owner” class, an exodus of youth and the elderly—but diverse opinions about solutions, ranging from new re-zoning laws to adjusting our standard of living.

Early on, the most convincing answer is made by condo developer Bob Rennie, who sees the problem simply as one of supply and demand. By this evaluation, prices are high because there are thousands of people looking to buy homes in Vancouver, but very few homes for sale. The solution is as simple as the equation: cut regulations, flood supply, build condos.    

This argument is made so frequently and with so little push back that it’s hard to disagree with. It takes a complex problem of abstractions and reduces it into something with narrative simplicity—there’s a symptom, a diagnosis, and a solution. It’s an equation everybody can understand—more homes = fewer homeless. Fewer buyers = cheaper homes. Later into the documentary, though, the condo solution starts to reveal its leaky holes. It can’t explain why ninety percent of condos are empty. Or why they haven’t had any success in reducing housing costs thus far. More so, it ignores the way that re-zoning squeezes out culture.

No Fixed doesn’t have an opinion on what should be done, but it does have a general guiding principle on what a city should be: A city should be a place made by the city, for the city. It should be something its citizens make, not something that happens to them. I agree. And one of the reasons No Fixed is worth watching—besides its topicality and it’s engaging interviewsis how it takes up the question of what a modern city in a globalized economy should look like, which voices are productive, what forces harmful. If you have a stake in Vancouver’s future, if you’re interested in what makes a city, if you read and liked Invisible Cities, this one’s for you.

 

Vancouver: No Fixed Address will be screening at Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on May 6. Tickets can be found here. Sounds like a good one!

 

Film still from Miss Kiet's Children

Film still from Miss Kiet's Children

There’s something therapeutic about Miss Kiet’s Children. The movie—directed by Petra Lataster Czisch and Peter Lataster—is about a multi-racial, multi-immigrant classroom and their teacher in the Netherlands. It’s a special classroom; here, few of the children can speak Dutch. Many of them have just from from Syria, Macedonia, and Iraq, guarded and shy, with stories they couldn’t communicate to their monolingual teacher even if they did have the words. Their pasts are scarred, but what’s oddly calming about Miss Kiet’s Children is how comfortably banal the classroom is. It’s just like any other classroom: there are petty fights, dirt stains on jeans, hurt feelings, bruised expectations, and a firm but compassionate Dutch teacher who leads them through their daily routines. In the two-hour movie spanning one full year of class, one gets the sense that everything’s going to be okay. 

This movie is all about the subtle drama. It prefers the small, un-exquisite crises of not getting along to the usual grand gesture. Kids grind their faces into their hands trying to learn the alphabet. They squeeze up in pleasure when they get a sticker. They work together to translate their patchwork of words into something Miss Kiet—just “Miss”, to them—can understand. During all of this, the camera captures their faces in extreme close-up while they gripe with the profound truth that the world doesn’t conform solely to their concerns.

The film never leaves the kindergarten classroom. Nevertheless, it resonates beyond its subject, even if it doesn’t set out to “make a point.” Politically, it does the work of reducing the fraught, complicated questions about refugees down to a simple, idyllic scenario that’s hard to disagree with. Too, it communicates the old adage that “everything worth learning is learned in kindergarten,” and while I doubt the value of getting a golden star for listening to Trump and his misdirections, the idea—the necessity—of getting along is a valuable reminder.

If there’s something dark about the film, it’s about what doesn’t appear on screen. Namely: What happened to the children before they arrived? How are their parents coping, and what’s their life at home like? Do they have parents? Hints as to what happened “before” are inscribed in their bodies and to be parsed out in their broken speech. Jorge, for instance, a cute kid with a droll face who yawns incessantly, is having trouble sleeping at home, a mystery that remains unsolved until he reveals that, “[back in Syria:] outside bang, bang! Not good. No sleep.” Another example is Leanne, the new, oily eyed student who watches everyone else play while firmly plied to the outer brick wall, skittish and flinchy. For every problem, though, Miss Kiet is there to listen, and her smart teaching assures that the kids become more and more comfortable throughout the year. By the end, we’re not the least bit worried about her kids. Instead, we’re left wondering: How many sensitive children are in a disorienting inter-continental limbo when they should be here, safe, in a classroom like Miss Kiet’s?

 

Miss Kiet's Children will be screening at The Annex on May 7. Tickets can be found here.