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It Was a Wonderful Life

It Was a Wonderful Life
Docurama / NewVideo
1993 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 82 min. / Street Date February 24, 2004 / 24.95
Narrated by Jodie Foster
Cinematography Jacek Laskus, Bruce Ready, Theo van de Sande
Film Editors Annie Stein, Lisa Leeman
Original Music Melissa Etheridge
Produced by Michèle Ohayon, Tamar E. Glaser
Directed by Michèle Ohayon

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
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, is terrifying.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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