There but for the grace of God, or: Can documentaries change the world?

American Winter’ and A Place at the Table’

4 minute read
Homeless in Portland: Holes in the safety net.
Homeless in Portland: Holes in the safety net.
How do you entice people to think about things they'd rather not think about? Whether the subject is climate change (Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth), or school bullying (Lee Hirsch's Bully), or sexual abuse in the military (Kirby Dick's The Invisible War), documentary films have emerged as perhaps the best alternative to continuing education for adults.

Two recent documentaries, each taking unflinching looks at hunger and poverty in America, are currently screening on cable TV:

American Winter follows eight formerly middle-class families contending with the specter of homelessness in and around Portland, Oregon, during the bleak winter of 2011-12. Unexpected issues have dramatically changed the subjects' lives, from severe health problems to sudden joblessness, from the death of the family's breadwinner to the paucity of employment offering a living wage.

No time for homework

We meet three little boys saddened by the fact that their parents skip dinner so that the kids can eat; a single mother who's upset that her son can't do his homework because the two of them spend their nights looking for a place to sleep; an unemployed dad with a Down's syndrome son, who's embarrassed that, at age 50, he must turn to his elderly father for help in paying the electric bill.

Interspersed among these personal stories are reflections from social service providers, clergy and local officials. The cumulative effect offers a stunning insight: Given the true picture of unemployment today as well as the widening holes in the various social service safety nets, most middle-class Americans are closer to homelessness than they realize.

Living on junk food

This notion is reinforced by A Place at the Table, an incisive, prismatic examination of America's shameful hunger problem— specifically the fact that 50 million citizens go to bed hungry every day. The film opens with achingly beautiful shots of fertile American fields brimming with crops— and then hits us with horrific statistics on obesity, malnutrition and outright starvation.

Like American Winter, this documentary cuts back and forth between individual stories: the single Philadelphia mom who's forced to feed her at-risk kids junk food, or the winsome ten-year-old Colorado girl who's unable to concentrate in class because her hunger is so pervasive that she visualizes her teacher turning into a giant banana.

As in American Winter, personal vignettes are juxtaposed against interviews with experts, sociologists and high-profile personalities like Tom Colicchio of "Top Chef." The actor Jeff Bridges, who launched the End Hunger Network nearly 30 years ago, remarks, "If another country was doing this to our kids, we would be at war."

"'Entitlement' rhetoric

Threading through these films is an unsettling vein that Dr. Larry J. Brown (author of Living Hungry in America) describes as America's love/hate relationship with poverty and the poor. Emma Lazarus' s uplifting sentiment of "Send us your homeless, your poor" is contrasted against today's widely prevailing fear that "somebody else is getting something for free or something they don't deserve."

On the rhetorical front, what was once seen as government's responsibility to help the less fortunate has now morphed into a loaded word like "entitlement." The film decries the fact that Congress spent $700 billion to bail out the banking and insurance industries but balked at spending $10 billion to fed the hungry.

(The lawmakers settled on $4.5 billion; they agreed to a six-cent boost in the school lunch program— an increase that was offset by deducting funds from the food stamp program.)

It worked before

A Place at the Table
reminds us that 45 years ago, another disturbing food documentary created a nationwide impact. In 1968, the CBS special, Hunger in America—an eye-opening look at starvation in the U.S.— ultimately led to bipartisan funding of federal programs that all but eliminated American hunger by 1980.

"It was really inspirational to us to see that a piece of filmmaking back in 1968 was able to have such a pronounced effect on public policy," director Kristi Jacobson remarks. "We figured that if it worked once, maybe it could happen again." That's food for thought, at least.

What, When, Where

American Winter. A film directed by Joe and Henry Gantz. Available on HBO. A Place at the Table. A film directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. Available on iTunes and On Demand.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation