Housing Problems

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 28, 2015

This extraordinarily important documentary milestone may strike you as being unwieldy, both technologically and stylistically. The historic record is clear—and it’s evident when you watch the film, too—in telling us that the latter is almost completely due to the former. This is one of the first times that documentarians recorded synchronized sound, out in the field. There were obstacles! You’ve got to manage it before you can manage it beautifully.

But let’s get something straight here. It’s a blessing to think about and enjoy beauty and formal sophistication and all that. There are times, though, when such interests are not only superfluous, they’re in poor taste. Life-and-death is no time for insisting on or even thinking about gloss!

These testimonies, so reflective of dire privation and the most admirable courage, are very moving. “Coming into these rooms I’ve had not luck since I’ve been in ‘em. First I lost one youngster in one. Then I lost another youngster seven weeks old.” “Everything in the house is on the crook.” Mrs. Graves and the rat! It’s moving, and not a little bit maddening. That’s where activism comes in, along with all of the methods and mindsets and ideologies that go with it. It’s so necessary, and so complicated; the greater the need, it seems, the more we get to disagreeing about how to address it.

That’s documentary for you. That’s politics, in fact, which is why these things are simultaneously the most difficult and the most important things we can talk about. In typical 1930’s British doc fashion, Housing Problems presents us with what’s wrong, then proposes a solution. Given the sponsorship of the film this structure was understandable, even necessary. Given the intractability of social problems, this structure can also leave a lot to be desired. There’s likely to be a lot more to it! In this case, though, one suspects that the Oil concerns that sponsored the film were actually in the right. Making a bit of money while helping people. It sounds pretty straightforward. It sounds like doing the right thing, to the best of your knowledge and ability. In other words, virtue. In other words, the documentary idiom. Contra Carlisle, heroism for and by the common man. So essential!