Boom: The Sound of Eviction
Directed by Francine Cavanaugh, Mark Liiv, and Adams Wood
Reviewed by Megan Shaw Prelinger
Thursday, January 10 2002, 10:29 AM
For San Francisco residents, the dot-com bubble was a macro event that writ itself large on our landscape. Boom: The Sound of Eviction is a film that documents the impact of the bubble on one neighborhood, the historically Hispanic, working-class Mission district. In the 1990s this neighborhood was colonized by the dot-com industry in a land grab that sacrificed the artists and working class residents on the altar of the great boom. As similarly documented in the book Hollow City by Rebecca Solnit and photographer Susan Schwarzenberg (Verso, 2001), the changes that gentrification brought to San Francisco are vividly visible and tangible. Boom is a moving image documentary of the evictions and protests that were the result of this land grab. And it adds the sounds of this painful transition by capturing the voices of the displaced.
Boom presents powerful testimony to the pain of displacement suffered by the victims of gentrification. It tells the stories of a few central characters who are being forced to react to the sweep of evictions that is charging through their neighborhood. One central character is Cathy, a mother of several children who has been evicted from her apartment in San Francisco and at the time of filming is living with friends in the east bay. As the film progresses, Cathy looks as far afield as Petaluma for affordable housing, but ultimately leaves the SF Bay Area for the Southwest. Another character is Lola McKay, an octegenarian whose fight against eviction contributes to the end of her life. But most affecting is the story of a young man who is targeted for eviction because a new (read: dot-invader) neighbor doesn't like the noise made by his younger siblings. The conclusion of his story forms the emotional climax at the end of Boom. Interspersed among the threads of these narratives are segments about the dot-commers, the developers, and the politicians who are benefitting from the boom.
Boom is affecting and well-made, but I find that it neglects success in one area that is too critical to overlook. Unfortunately it has been constructed to preach a message to the converted. This is a job it does very well, at the expense of being a film that could preach a message to the un-converted, which I believe would be a higher aim. As a longtime San Francisco resident and veteran of a couple of eviction notices, I did not need to be convinced of the realities portrayed in the film. But I kept in mind as I watched it that it will hopefully be shown to a broader audience -- to people who have not lived through the past decade in San Francisco and who will therefore not be familiar with the historical moment the film portrays. With that perspective in mind, I believe that the film could have been drastically improved by anchoring some of the main narratives with supporting facts.
The central narrative of Cathy and her family screams for more information, but the filmmakers leave us hanging. What does Cathy do for a living? What kind of rent can she afford to pay? What was her rent before she was evicted? What are the rents of the apartments she is looking at? It is implied vaguely in the film that Cathy is employed, and perhaps payed a medium rent with no difficulty for years. I myself don't really need to know this information to appreciate her story. As a San Francisco local I immediately "get it" what her general circumstances are. But I feel that the vagueness with which Cathy's circumstances are portrayed in the video will make it hard for an unsympathetic audience to develop an identification with her situation.
In the same vein, it would be extremely helpful if the filmmakers had presented at least a brief outline of the tenant protection laws that are in force in S.F. Boom makes some reference to tenant protections, but without explaining them it fails to make clear how these protections fail the victims of gentrification.
At the emotional climax of the film, we see a street party celebrating the success of the young man who has saved his young siblings from eviction, protecting them from the damaging effects of dislocation and disorientation. It is uplifting to see the neighborhood taking to the streets to celebrate the success of the community in fighting this eviction, but once again, to an uninformed audience this story is frustratingly vague. What was the basis on which the eviction notice was defeated? I can make some educated guesses based on my local knowledge, but non-local viewer won't be able to do that. The film makes clear that the community banded together to do "it", whatever the "it" was that let that family stay in place, but as a viewer I would be even more moved by the story if I knew what "it" was that saved the family from eviction. (A letter from a pro bono lawyer? A letter from a lawyer paid for by community donations? Friendly intimidation? A letter from the family based on information they gained from the Tenants Union about their protections under the law? Or was it just the testimony of supportive neighbors combined with the bad publicity?)
There are other places in the film where the same critique can be made, but I don't want this review to be mistaken for a critical rant. Boom was well done, and the critical comments in this review are motivated by a wish to see this film have a powerful impact on ALL who see it, not just locals.
Boom's lack of specificity will not stop it from playing an important role in the recent social history of San Francisco. As a viewer who has been faced with illegal rent increases and eviction threats, I found that my appreciation for the film came from my easy ability to sympathize and relate to the problems of the main characters. It was cathartic to me to view Boom as a condensed and intimate replay of the social forces that have changed my city in the past five years. I can imagine that for years to come, showings of the film will continue to provide an important social experience of catharsis for those who lived through the boom years in San Francisco, especially in the Mission District.
Boom is the first feature-length documentary by the Whispered Media collective, who are one of the founding collectives within the Independent Media Center.
For more information on Boom, drop by the Whispered Media website