Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ah, yes, a documentary about homelessness. The perfect opportunity for us all to be liberal and
compassionate. The surprise of It Was a Wonderful Life is that has no elaborate
agenda of finger-pointing. The people we see aren't protesting or causing grief on our streets.
They're the invisible homeless, the ones we don't think about, and they're mostly women.
In 82 minutes, this 1993 film follows and interviews six or seven women who by one means or another
have lost their jobs and support systems and are finding "alternative" ways to survive. None of
them are criminals, drug addicts or mental cases, they're just people with unfortunate circumstances.
If there's a lesson here, it's that there's only a thin economic margin keeping many of us from
being in the same boat. It's true that these women don't come from large extended families; many of
them are single children, old enough for both parents to be dead. They're mostly destitute because
they lived with husbands who were in charge of the money. A husband dies, the wife can't get a
job paying a living wage, the money dries up, and eviction follows soon thereafter. Or one gets
sick, the money goes, and not much later they're living in their car. One wife with
teenaged kids was abandoned by her husband, a wealthy man. She was a successful singer once, and the
family considered themselves rich. But her husband made her stop working. When he took off with
the money, she found herself with all the responsibility and no resources.
There are some courageous women here. None look like "bag ladies." Public assistance is slow
and unreliable (we see an interview with a bureaucrat who would seem to be unmoved by it all); when
one calls official city telephone numbers to find out what housing assistance is available, the
recordings mention a waiting list of years.
The women we meet are a mixed batch of races and ages. None want to be on public assistance and all
are too frightened to go to shelters, where rapes and robberies are common. Several sleep in whatever
cars they have, afraid of being attacked in the night. The harassment by police is constant, as there's
no legal place to live in one's car. A charming woman with a long improvised hairstyle (pictured on
the cover) can't help but rack up parking tickets. The Santa Monica cops seize her car and impound
her dogs. She goes to the city attorney and cuts a deal to get her car and pets back - the price is
that she leave town. But
the impounders jack up the price of reclaiming the car and the dog pound tells her nobody called
and has her forcibly removed from the premises.
Another woman does a lot of camping up in the hills. When she can, she rents a U-Haul truck to be a
portable home. It's pitiful seeing her close the rolling door to say goodnight, knowing she can't
lock it from the inside and might be robbed. She keeps a pistol as protection, but it is stolen
by a snatch'n grab thief.
Finally, there's an upscale Santa Monica artist who struggles to keep up appearances, living on a
narrow margin and hiding her abject poverty. She has a bad back and finds it difficult to do the
only work she can get, domestic labor in houses much like the one she used to own. Like all the
rest, she's heavily in debt but manages to keep herself looking more than presentable. Nobody
would ever believe she's in so much trouble.
Once a person loses a permanent address they simply drop off the radar. When they stop paying the
fees for car registration and having normal connections to credit card companies, they become
de facto criminals - vagrants. They run afoul of all the city's watchmen - police, parking officials.
Not a whole lot of mercy there. We're forced to think of all the dependent people we know, old,
young and in
between who would be destitute if their spouses or families or best friends suddenly disappeared. I
remember UCLA students who worked with me in Westwood, who were basically abandoned by their families
and slept in their cars. One can do that when one is 20 years old and knows that things will
get better. 1
The women portrayed in It Was a Wonderful Life are honest and brave, and none seem to be
grandstanding, fishing for sympathy or hiding the truth. Expressions of desperation do cross
their faces from time to time - they're removed from frivolous concerns and spend all of their time
trying to survive. Director Michèle Ohayon films her subjects directly and succeeds in
sticking to the facts at hand. We get a look at invisible lives we didn't know were there; nobody
preaches or accuses anyone in particular, not even society at large.
Docurama's DVD of It Was a Wonderful Life is a good compressing of what looks to be a 16mm
docu well-shot and competently mixed. Melissa Etheridge provides a musical score, mostly guitars.
Otherwise it's a nicely-presented disc with no extras.
The film won festival competitions and received rave reviews. Like many good films distributed by
Docurama, it's greatly appreciated after
the fact, but not the kind of thing most of us seek out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It Was a Wonderful Life rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 13, 2004
1. In my own stupidity,
I found myself on the street for just one weekend in 1972 - the frat room I'd hired was locked up
and the dorms didn't open for students until Monday. I'd foolishly made no plans and had all of 45
cents in my pocket. All of my friends were out of town. I spent one cold night looking for a simple
comfortable place to hide, and eventually sneaked back into my dorm, avoiding the police and climbing
thirty feet up the side of a building to a 2nd floor landing. I'm a coddled middle-class '50s kid
and that was
just one night and completely my own fault. The idea of really being on my own now, like these women,
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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