Here at Home is an ambitious new webdoc from the Canadian National Film Board. Piggy-backing on a major Canadian research project on homelessness, it shows what the future of socially engaged webdocs might look like. It also showcases some of the unique features of a webdoc: ability to add more content over time as the project itself does, and ability to represent and navigate the content spatially.
The research project, ‘At Home’, is a major undertaking to establish whether the whole approach to homelessness needs to be flipped on its head - whether a focus on providing housing first, before other support services such as addiction and mental health treatment, might work in Canada (based on data from other places that shows this new approach to be successful). The five-year study began in 2008, and the webdoc production joined in over the past year. Teams of filmmakers in locations across Canada are following the participants in the study - filming their experiences in housing or without, and also gaining the perspectives of the care workers dealing with the participants.
As always from the NFB, the design is mesmerising - rolling colourful dots across the home screen represent the participants and they orbit the cities like planetary rings. A sprinkling of statistics provides the background data needed to understand the bigger picture, while individual videos tell the personal stories. The webdoc is unfolding now across the final year of the study. A handful of videos is available on the site already, but there are many more to come - 41 according to the counter on my last look. There’s also an accompanying blog to update viewers on progress.
Somehow the whole webdoc manages not to feel worthy - thanks in part to the design but also something to do with getting up close to the individual participants, hearing their accounts of life on the street and now, for some of them, in a place they can call home. The grin from ear to ear on Simon’s face when he enters what will be his new apartment is heart-warming (although we later learn he has to move out after a cockroach infestation). There are also surprises; James wishes he was back on the street with the freedom he feels it provides. These are perhaps unhelpful snippets I’m providing; neither a grin from one participant or wistfulness from another can provide the answer to whether the program works. But what the webdoc does is humanise the issue; turn what will otherwise be a huge report with presumably reams of statistics into something about individuals. The overarching sense from the doc is of a complex issue that fully needs its five-year study, the range of responses in the first handful of videos alone is enough to demonstrate that.
Along with the far reaching scope of this webdoc, I’m also enamoured of the partnership approach with a major research project. I think the NFB have hit upon a rich potential avenue for future social webdoc production, and demonstrated that a partnership with an organisation need not result in a promotional piece. Clearly there are benefits to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (the organisation conducting the research) in showing their work widely to the public through a documentary, but it’s also brave of them to do so before the results of the project are clear. On the NFB’s side, they gain access to a huge range of diverse and rich stories, and are able to place those individual stories within a broader framework and purpose.
The NFB has form in this approach, creating Filmmaker-in-Residence, a project in which filmmaker Katerina Cizek spent four years documenting life in a Toronto hospital. Filmmaker-in-Residence had a number of outputs including traditional broadcast docs and online elements. There are also echoes of Australian documentary The Oasis, which was accompanied by a parliamentary report into youth homelessness and the broadcast was followed up by a special Q&A episode. Here At Home extends these ideas with a fully online approach and may be one new model for social documentary production, albeit one on this scale that will generally only be undertaken by a public broadcaster with the resources to do so. It will be interesting to see if the final version, at the end of the study, takes on any new form such as a broadcast doc, or if it remains as is and becomes an online archive and resource.
About this writer
Patrick Lindsay's book shows that to understand the Anzac spirit we must first understand the spirit of Gallipoli.
The untold story of Australian soldiers caught up in war and revolution during the invasion of Russia in 1918-1919.
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