Building Bridge: A Housing Project for Women
Documentary – 22 min. – 2003
Homeless women and women in desperate straits in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside found a safe haven when Bridge Housing for Women opened its doors in 2001. The opening culminated a twenty-year effort by street people and activists to create good permanent housing and a place where women had the support to come off drugs and alcohol. But the transition from street life to apartment does not take place without adjustment. Building Bridge tells the stories of Board members who joined the project as visionaries and creators and now must become building managers, and of women from the streets learning to make Bridge their home.
Building Bridge: a Housing Project for Women grew out of the SSHRC*-supported research project, “Health & Home,” that investigated the relationship between housing and the health of women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. As a co-investigator specializing in media, I did several projects, including a film about the process of learning to do research [Health and Home: August Mini Research Project (2001)] and the film Building Bridge (2003). Working on the Health & Home project brought me into contact with Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for the first time in an in depth way. This was the case for most of the investigators on the project. The neighborhood was notorious for its drug dealing, poverty and prostitution. Under the able direction of principal investigator, Dara Culhane, all of us developed a new understanding of the neighborhood and learned to appreciate the Downtown Eastside ‘as a neighborhood.’ I personally gained true respect for its inhabitants.
During the course of the project I would frequently attend meetings of the Board of Directors of the Bridge Housing Society for Women. The Board – ordinary women sympathetic to the neighborhood, many working for years on this project – was then in the process of supervising the building of Bridge Housing. Bridge Housing was to offer homeless women of the neighborhood 43 fully-equipped suites (in contrast to the single rooms typical of other projects), an emergency shelter, and space for a women’s centre on the main floor. Thinking the Board might be interested in a film documenting the project, I stood at the intersection of Columbia and Cordova weekly for two years and photographed the Bridge building taking shape. The Board indeed did ask me to make a film and the photos I shot contributed to an animated time capsule of the building process that appears in the finished film.
In the context of my work:
Other than the animation, the style of Building Bridge, is quite conservative in its format, keeping with the purpose of the film as a tool to be used by the Board of Directors of Bridge Housing to seek funding for further projects. I was happy to contribute in this way. I was frustrated, however, to present only an overall uncritical view, and not to have the opportunity to explore further the role of this building in the lives of the women residents who inhabited it.
I had been asked to join the Health & Home project because Dara Culhane had seen my earlier film, Not Crazy Like You Think, and she wanted to include a similar participatory-style project in Health and Home. This was not to happen until “Video Ethnography with women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,” a follow up SSHRC-supported project that I undertook alone. In particular, my goal for this second project was to interview the women of Bridge Housing over time – i.e. a longitudinal visual ethnography project with the women residents as collaborators.
Each of my experiences in ethnographic filmmaking has involved asking individuals to share their ‘cultural capital,’ a term used by Pierre Bourdieu to designate knowledge that results from social experience. In the example of my film Not Crazy Like You Think this was the participants’ personal experience of ‘craziness’ and of the psychiatric system. In Eva: Guerrillera, it was the actors’ knowledge of guerrilla warfare and imprisonment. Here, it was the skills of women who have learned to survive on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
I am rather unique among ethnographic filmmakers in being an academic trained in filmmaking, its history and theoretical concerns, as well in the interdisciplinary focus of women’s studies. As a film theorist, I am conscious of the significance of camera placement and how camera distance, framing and angle can influence spectators’ perceptions of documentary characters. As a scholar, I am aware of what has been produced on the Downtown Eastside and on poverty issues. In making Building Bridge I thus consciously attempted to avoid what I consider a weakness in much of the film work on the Downtown Eastside – that is, a focus on documentary characters who are similar to the presumed white, middle class audience.
My work has been influenced by feminist filmmaking and the Quebec cinéma direct documentary style that favors settings familiar to the actor-participants, and especially a direct address style of interview that acknowledges the camera’s presence in the gaze of the interview subject. As well, Cinéma direct’s subjects were often what the French call the “little people” (les petits gens) – chosen for their ordinariness rather than any special status. The “process oriented” style of the work (e.g. evidence of the camera equipment) contributes to an overarching goal typical of my filmmaking – here, for a de-exoticized and intimate presentation of three women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
* Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.