When capitalism sets the world on fire

VIFF takes a sobering look at today’s economic reality with a handful of powerful docs

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      One can argue that the very nature of capitalism is nondiscriminatory; that is, capital itself is a kind of artificial intelligence that destroys any perceived threat to its own interests. A number of films at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, continuing until October 12, tackle the ins and (mainly) outs of the current economic reality.

      While most titles deal with the nightmarish turn of the American Dream, Dreaming Under Capitalism (screening at the Cinematheque on Thursday [October 4]; International Village, Saturday [October 6]) traffics in actual dreams, all in French. Belgian director Sophie Bruneau listens to 12 workers in Europe’s bureaucratic capital, Brussels, who describe how their jobs have invaded their sleep.

      The hourlong effort is paired with "The Washing Society", a slightly shorter look at more hands-on labour. Directors Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker visit a number of Manhattan laundromats, where women of colour (except for one man originally from China) talk about their experiences at the bottom end of the service industry. Most of these washeterias have been shuttered since the movie wrapped, to be replaced by faceless pickup services built on even cheaper labour. “For us,” Olesker informed the Straight, “these are on-the-street observations reflecting larger changes in the city, due to demographic shifts, and not unique to laundromats.”

      Gentrification is about more than real estate. Millionaire politicians like Michigan governor Rick Snyder and congressional honchos Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell seem to derive palpable delight from hurting the poor. Although their union-busting, health-care gutting, water-poisoning, mass-incarcerating policies hurt plenty of working-class whites, black and brown people are singled out for the most crushing abuse.

      Italian director Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (Cinematheque, Friday [October 5]; International Village, Saturday [October 6]) is a two-hour, black-and-white look at violence coming from all directions in communities of colour in the Deep South. Apart from having to live with the constant fear of being murdered by police—now in their own homes—visible minorities are hemmed in by economic “redlining”, making black business and real-estate investment as difficult, in many places, as it’s been at any time since the Civil War.

      This syndrome surfaces, obliquely, in United Skates (International Village, Saturday [October 6]; Vancouver Playhouse, Sunday [October 7]), a look at the positive influence roller rinks have had in African-American life for almost a hundred years.

      Like "The Washing Society", this is a largely memorial exercise, as these directors, Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, discovered while surveying remaining rinks throughout the U.S.

      “We fell into this story by accident,” says an ebullient Winkler, in a call to the Straight. “We’d heard about black roller rinks, and then when we saw how vibrant this scene really was, we discovered that it really could sustain a two-hour film, filmed with drama and conflict and also lots of music and
      real joy. The celebratory aspect was what made it all worthwhile.”

      Shot over five years, the project—executive-produced by activist singer John Legend—became somewhat less joyous. “After a while,” she continues, “we saw that all these great places were closing, and it was always the same pattern: they’d be rezoned and replaced by the same 10 big-box stores. None were being turned into other kinds of community centres.”

      Her filmmaking partner, Tina Brown, has a background that’s both Vietnamese and Australian, and has helped produce documentaries on sports, travel, and Nelson Mandela. Together, they made a short about one of these hot spots, and then expanded their scope.

      “It’s really about access to public space,” Brown says, “without being heavily policed. It’s getting so that we don’t see black people gathered in large numbers unless there’s a protest on the streets. And that’s just not right. Of course, we didn’t know, until we started meeting all these skaters, how important these places were and are.”

      For Winkler, originally from Hawaii, the project was about “telling a story that makes people feel united. Many skaters had no idea there were so many places like this, nor that they were rapidly disappearing. They provided safe spaces for creativity and community in the hip-hop era, and are worth fighting for today.”

      The space we call Vancouver was important to Winkler, coming to the fest alone. Her grandmother Mona Allister died in Delta, at 94, earlier this summer. And there will be a memorial just before Skates’ first screening. “My grandmother was this film’s first investor,” she says proudly, “and happily, she did get to see it before she passed.”