Irene: January 2010

Irene: January 2010
2010, Documentary, 58 min.

Background to Irene: January 2010

I first met Irene in 2003 when making the film Building Bridge: A Housing Project for Women as part of the SSHRC*-supported research project, “Health & Home”, that investigated the relationship between housing and the health of women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Irene was one of three residents that I interviewed in documenting the beautiful new 43-suite building constructed for the homeless women of the neighborhood. Both Irene and Deanna, who I interviewed for the Building Bridge film are Natives, reflecting the racial mixture of the Downtown Eastside where First Nations women and men often find an urban home when in difficulty.

Working on the Health & Home project, I found myself enjoying the neighborhood’s unguarded honesty and its acutely accurate nose for bullshit. I was the research team’s videographer, but I soon came to understand that the neighborhood did not need yet another camera – they had been ‘”videoed to death.” So I taught a video-making workshop at the Women’s Centre. The women were full of ideas. They wanted to film street art and to talk about a day in the life of a woman on welfare – run off her feet while those with authority assumed she was lazy and doing nothing. Just living and surviving here takes a lot of effort.

In 2006 I was awarded a new 3-year SSHRC project grant. I proposed to conduct video interviews with the women I had interviewed at Bridge three years earlier, and to mount these follow up interviews on a website. That project is now exhibited at “Women in a Changing Downtown Eastside” ( ).

Participating again in the neighborhood, I was astounded by the changes brought about by gentrification despite a resistance fight mounted by its residents.

Following Irene’s story on “Women in a Changing Downtown Eastside” (told first in “Building Bridge: A Housing Project for Women,” then in a long interview in 2008, and two more in 2010), provides insight into changes occurring in the life of the generous and affable Irene as set against a background of the transformations underway in her neighborhood. In the first interview with Irene in 2003 she expresses impatience with her, at times trying, Bridge neighbors. By 2010, Irene explains she has learned to understand and find sympathy for women ‘who have had difficult lives’ – perhaps because she now discounts less her own difficulties.

Before we had a chance to film our first follow up interview, Irene discovered she had cancer – both in her liver and kidney. She lost 40 pounds in treatment. It took two years for her to begin to feel better. We waited until she recuperated sufficiently before attempting to film again. In 2008 Irene tells us her biopsy is negative. She is lucky she was chosen to live at Bridge Housing, she says: the attention she received living at Bridge while ill surely saved her life. Irene and I catch up on film, going into depths we had not approached before. In Irene: January 2010, Irene continues to feel well; she and is looking forward to moving to the long-awaited Woodwards’ apartments, the subject of our April 2010 interview.

In the context of my work:

Downtown Eastside diary – May 14, 2008:
I haven’t spent much time in the DTES recently, and I realize this evening after less than half a day at the DTES Women’s Centre that I am exhausted. The DTES is very demanding. The AIDS outreach worker, Myrna’s eyes never rest on mine as we converse. It is ‘chicken day’ at the DTES women’s centre and a ‘5-week month’; today – only half way through the month – lunch at the Centre is more crowded than ever with women whose welfare cheque has already run out. Myrna’s eyes dart around to catch the trouble that is happening. It’s loud in here and drugs – both street drugs and prescription – make a lot of the women here behave frenetically. A woman is walking out the door with the plate from her lunch. Myrna catches her, but the other worker near the door turns the event into laughter: It was an oversight, she says. The woman going out the door indeed looks surprised to see that she has a ceramic plate in her hand. There are other small kindnesses at the Women’s Centre. Earlier a woman who was ‘out of it’ for some reason or another lay on the couch raising her shirt to expose flat breasts over bony ribs. A stranger sitting next to her quietly lets her know that her breasts are exposed.

There is always a power differential when a filmmaker-academic makes a film with people in need or in crisis. This imbalance can be relieved or aggravated. The lessons on how to conduct research ethically have to be learned and relearned. I have to remind myself not to be driven by deadlines and agendas and to accept the neighborhood’s rhythms, to not expect that my project’s needs are more important than my collaborator-subject’s. People in the Downtown Eastside are astute at an emotional level and quickly tune in to power relationships. If they get a bad vibe it will be hard to repair.

Making a film in the Downtown Eastside is a process of judging and self-judging to determine if you are getting it right. The filmmaker-academic does not want to exploit, does not want to sensationalize, but you do believe in the notion that film is important in the democratization process. Yet what does that mean? What is ‘information’? How will this information be used? Could exposing information such as about the ‘poverty industry’, for example, allow this information to be misappropriated and blown out of proportion? What is the mechanism of people’s fascination with poverty? How can voyeurism be avoided? Does this real time, personalized story of Irene, with its direct address to the camera and acknowledgement of the film apparatus change potential voyeurism to a response of sympathetic attention? These questions are on the filmmaker’s mind constantly, and constantly answered and reassessed. My proposed solution was not just the extended de-sensationalized interview, but to place this interview in the context of research into issues of addiction, poverty, racism, and the search for solutions – all interconnected and available together on the website “Women in a Changing Downtown Eastside” (

Practical lessons:
1. When to restrict information:
What is missing in the film Building Bridge are the things I thought, given my assignment to show Bridge in a good light, I should not pursue. But I show enough to feel my integrity is intact.

Things to leave to inference, without further probing: e.g. intimations of ‘hot property’ in the possession of a Bridge tenant

Dealing with things that are complicated: e.g. The surprise and envy I read of the face of my subject when she saw another tenant’s more roomy disability suite as I reviewed the Building Bridge video with her. Such a response does not fit in with society’s notion of “gratitude” – that the poor should be ‘grateful’ when society has already ‘improved their lives’. But under capitalism, should not envy be a sign of “good health”? She now has a decent apartment but wants more – Is this a success story when judged by the values of capitalism?

A balance has to be maintained: Truthfully represent while not compromising the interviewee; anticipate misperceptions.

2. Informed consent:
It is imperative that the filmmaker obtain the informed consent of the research subject and assure that the giving of consent is not influenced by need – e.g. by the small (perhaps only to the researcher) honourarium given for the subject’s participation. An interview done in these conditions could cause the interview subject to abandon caution and suffer later.

A long-term relationship can avoid this danger.

3. Showmanship:
I have encountered this reaction on the part of the interviewee when seeing herself in the video: “I’m a star!” she exclaims. I first discovered this reaction in response to my1984 ethnographic film, Not Crazy Like You Think. Does ‘stardom’ make the interviewee impervious to dangers of exposure? Each example of the response demands pondering.

4. Avoiding compassion fatigue:
the ‘they are just like us’ response from the audience
when information is a ‘consumable product’ – made uncomplicated

5. .Develop a long term relationship with one’s subjects; be accountable:
So you don’t “steal a little bit of their lives,” then move on.

* Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada