Russ Ford's Blog

What Hot Docs Taught Me About My City

I don't usually write about the arts but yesterday I spent the day at the Hot Docs festival seeing three shorts and three feature film four  of which moved me to write.

The first was a short about a Canadian soldier and his return from Afghanistan.  It was not a smooth transition.  There was   much marital discord and erratic behavior.  The soldier believed he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  He would not get a formal diagnosis  because he was still in the Canadian forces and to acknowledge PTSD, he said, would pretty much end his career. 

The film was interspersed with clips from Defense Minister Peter McKay telling us how the Canadian military supports its troops who suffer from PTSD.  The moral of the story, governments lie.

It was followed by the feature, Unclaimed a riveting film about an American soldier who was shot down by the Viet Cong while conducting a secret and illegal operation in Laos during the Vietnam war.

Without spoiling the movie, the soldier was  found last year living in Vietnam .  He suffers from both physical and mental problems which are the result of being tortured for five years by the Viet Cong. 

There is  no doubt that the found man is the same person who was shot down more than 50 years ago.  The American military  however refuses to acknowledge the man they left behind  is one of theirs.  In fact the government has launched a campaign to discredit the movie.  It won`t work.  The moral of the story, governments lie and it this case not only about the identity of a soldier but about the bombing of  Laos.

Then it was off to see  Remote Area Medical, a film about an extremely large mobile medical clinic which offers free health care.  The program was initiated  in third world countries  but now largely works out of the United States because they found the need to be the  greatest  in the United States.

It tells the story of a five day clinic that is set up in rural Tennessee  at what has to be the biggest NASCAR racing facility in the world.  All of the practitioners are volunteers.

It begins with a scene in the parking lot where people have camped out for days to try to ensure they get  care.  The clinic  operates on a first-come-first-served basis and has limits to the number of people they can see.  It usually runs between 500 to 800 people in a day.

I wonder if some American pundits will still talk about the lineups for surgery in this country after they have seen this film.
Most of these people have never been to a doctor or if they have it has not been for a long time.  Like the 61 year old man who had off the chart high blood pressure.  When asked when he  last saw a doctor he said, "when I was a teenager."  While the clinic did what they could, he needs medication and that he cannot afford.

Dental work was  a common element.  People came to have their abscessed teeth removed.  It was common to come to the clinic to have half a dozen teeth pulled.  While there was local freezing, there was no pain killers given post surgery.  That would require a prescription and that would require money. 

When asked, one patient said he would deal with the pain by purchasing street drugs.  "The health care system has turned me into a criminal," he said.

The final movie I saw was Alias.  Described as a movie about the hip hop industry in Toronto,  it is much more than that.  It is about life in Toronto`s public housing developments.  Music is seen as the way out or as one of the characters says, "You want to get out , you can get out through music , or through sports or through hustling if you are good at it.  If you are not good at any of those things you might as well go to school.``

The comparators and contrasts between Toronto and Tennessee are striking. Both are poor but the Toronto group is not suffering from the acute health care issues faced by the Tennesseans.  Those in Toronto crave a better life which is largely defined by material success.  They are dissatisfied, they are angry.

The residents of Tennessee are neither and they are not looking for a way out.  I doubt they can even imagine what that would be.  Their  life is very  hard but it goes unquestioned. It does not seem  they think it unusual that they have to get all their teeth pulled, cannot see for years because they cannot afford glasses and do not have access to even basic care. 

They live in a state that votes Republican, a party that often claimed public health care is socialism.

Community cohesion is also very different.  One of the Toronto rappers goes on at great length as to why you cannot trust anyone including your best friends because they could turn on you at any moment. ``We don't use our real names and no one even knows where I live.``

That  is not what you sense  from Tennessee as there does seem to be a greater sense of cooperation.  So why do you have these differences in two poor communities.  Why do  those in the Toronto movie demand change and those in Tennessee slavishly support God and country.

The one big difference is racism.  The Toronto group has been impoverished  due to the racism of the dominant white culture.  They  know their options have been severely limited.  Racism breeds a sense of injustice and a demand for change.

Those in Tennessee are not the victims of racism, they are white.  They may be victims of an economic and political system but they do not feel any sense of injustice.  I do not know how they would explain why their life is so bad while others in the country are so prosperous.  You do get the feeling that it never even occurs to them that they have been shafted.

While both groups are poor and those in Tennessee appear much poorer, the Toronto  group has much greater relative poverty.  If you live in Toronto you see the poverty but you also see the wealth.  You see what others have and wonder why not you. In the Tennessee mountains there is no wealth, nothing to compare.

These movies show that social  disengagement is much more complicated than being just a question of money.
We could and we definitely should be more generous  in providing income support to people in this city.  The amount people receive in the province on social assistance is pathetic. 

We are misguided  however if we think we can buy our way out of this problem. We need to end the notion that hip hop, basketball and hustling are the only ways out.  And that will never happen as long as we continue to define individual and community capacities by race.

Yes,  we need to make significant increases to public assistance but we also need to get serious about racism and the harm it brings to our social fabric.

Later this week I will be  among those meeting with former MPP Alvin Curling who along with former chief Justice Roy McMurtry,  wrote the report on the Roots of Youth Violence in Toronto.  Not surprisingly  the report echoed the notion that the problems facing black youth in this city are based on racism  and  poverty.

Despite the push that these two political heavyweights have, the report has been ignored.    That of course only reinforces the notion  of systemic racism. The topic of our meeting this week is to try to figure out how to  get this report back on the public agenda.

It is my impression that none of our political leaders have experienced the life that those in Alias are experiencing.  Surely though, you do not have to experience something  to recognize its injustice and importance.
End notes: While on the subject of political agenda, the House of Commons recently spent three days dealing with the issue of economic inequality in Canada.  Three days on arguably the most important social issue in this country.  And we wonder why according to a story in the Toronto Star this week that only 27% of Canadians  feel any attachment to the federal government.

Reminder of our among Friends walk for mental health next Saturday.  Call LAMP for details.

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