Go back  November 1984, Afterimage 

A review of the first part of the movie which is not available any more. It was too expensive to constantly revise and update. 
 

Poor America 
                                                                 
by LYDIA IACONO 
 

EVERYONE KNOWS a magical person. He or she has the power to attract others effortlessly, yet remains graceful and charming despite all the attention received. Jacob Holdt, who lived rather than directed American Pictures, must be one of those. Originally from Denmark, Holdt spent a five-year period in the mid-1970s as a vagabond in the U.S. He survived on $10 earned biweekly selling his own blood, a commitment to trust others indiscriminately (even shady-looking characters toting rifles on the passenger seat), and, no doubt, his own compelling personality. 

Although credits inform us it was directed by the "American people," American Pictures is the film that Holdt created out of the slides he took during his travels. The filmed slides, with additional drawings and photographs interspersed throughout, make up the visual part. Holdt himself narrates the film, providing explanation and information that could not be communicated through the visuals alone. He tells of his relationship to the things he has photographed, giving a loosely chronological record of his wanderings in the South. He took in over 100,000 miles and one-tenth of the entire highway system of the U.S. Politically oriented, articulate folk songs take over Holdt's narration at times; taped interviews and conversations (featuring Holdt's persuasive tone) are used as well. 

Holdt began his journey as an innocent from a country without crime or poverty. Not surprisingly, one of his first experiences in the U.S. was an attack on his person, with the unforgettable shock that always accompanies it -- the fear of another human being. He prefaces the rest of his story by explaining how, only through his vagabonding experiences, he came to resolve the questions that originated from this initial experience. He did come to find the source of this "language of violence" and to understand the man he had first feared. 

As a penniless traveler, Holdt naturally drifted into the most isolated and impoverished sections of the South. He found blacks and whites living in relationships indistinguishable from slavery. He shocks the viewer with concrete examples of this slavery that still exists and exposes the incredible conditions of deprivation that accompany it. Living under these conditions himself, talking with the black workers and white farm owners alike, Holdt gives an insider's perspective on the mental and physical effects of such a life, on the oppressors as well as on the oppressed. Holdt concludes that these examples of slavery cannot be dismissed as isolated vestiges of a society long since changed for the better. He has found that this slavery is just the most extreme level of a racism that involves the whole U.S., and affects the psyches of all Americans, black and white. 

Holdt is in a unique position to draw this conclusion. 
The most amazing thing about this travel document stems from the range of his encounters and his ability to make comparisons among them. His movement from person to person was random, thus neither rejecting nor judging any individual. For instance, he recounts this bizarre sequence of events, random yet strangely interconnected: at one point, Holdt couldn't stand another sleepless night in a shack. As he wandered towards the local jail where he hoped to get permission to spend the night, he was picked up by a wealthy banker's daughter and invited to spend a few days in luxury. The photographic record shows a blurred shot of an attractive young woman stepping out of her car. During his stay at her house, Holdt learns that this banker made a large part of his fortune by exploiting the local blacks, and that he considers himself a liberal because he hires blacks as bank tellers, though he refers to them as "niggers" behind their backs. The jail Holdt was originally heading towards would soon house Joanne Little, who gained notoriety because she killed the white jailer who raped her there. 

This "unconditional positive regard" led him into contact with the most racist whites and the most oppressed blacks. The diversity of his contacts and his ability to make others confide in him makes for the richness of this documentary. We see Holdt smiling magnanimously seated at the head of a Southern mansion's candelabraed dinner table, and posing in front of a shack with his arm loosely around its ragged inhabitants. Holdt's sympathetic, yet matter-of-fact photographs clearly were taken by someone who relished these encounters, which makes the conclusions he draws all the more potent. The tone of these shots is naturalistic and herein lies their power; as if to say, "I took a walk and this is what I found." In fact, the idea of making a documentary only surfaced after more than four years of wandering and picture taking. He began taking photos to send to his parents in Denmark, when they didn't believe the descriptions in his letters. And it would indeed be difficult to visualize these repulsive conditions. 

The use of still photography adds depth to the film by ensuring sensitivity to the subject matter. The viewer is not nearly as vulnerable to manipulation of perception of the subject with the use of still photography versus the use of film. The movie camera's super-human capacities (our eyes don't zoom in, for example), the acts of editing film, and the need to condense real film time are necessary aesthetic tools of the filmmaker. However, these unavoidably take the viewer one step further from the subject being filmed, and closer to another subject, namely, the director. This presents a particular problem for documentary filmmakers; for no matter how naturalistic their technique, they must conform their subject to a structure that makes the film palatable to an audience. Holdt would never have been able to address the same number of experiences had he used film; it would have stretched for hours and hours. The use of still photography, however, allows Holdt to condense each experience into a few pointed images. 

Because it freezes a point in time and space, the photograph allows us to consider that moment more closely and carefully than would be possible in real life (or in a film), where motion and noise may be distracting and confusing. The viewer is presented with a clear picture of what Holdt has chosen as representative or important to a time and place. And since we have all had the experience of looking through a viewfinder and recognize the relation of photographer to subject (in simple photography), we never lose sight of Holdt's presence. This reinforces our awareness of Holdt's closeness to and involvement with his subject. 

The emotional clout of this documentary rests on the adaptability of still photography to the illustration of contrast. Holdt shows us the difference between the rich and poor environments by alternating slides, or by showing them concurrently on a split screen. Using this technique, Holdt drives home the sheer injustice of the inequity. These extremes of excess and need both anger and astonish the viewer. Holdt forces us to compare the lives of a black girl and white girl who live within walking distance of each other. He spent time in a millionaire's mansion, then befriended an impoverished black family from the same area. We see the millionaire's child passing an ornate chandelier on her way up a winding balustrade. The black child dances in the light of a kerosene lamp, happy because Holdt has bought kerosene so they can have light at night. The millionaire's daughter watches television from her perch on a huge white bed. The black child and her family are seen cooking outside the shack because they have no indoor stove. 

The use of still photography clues the viewer to a more subtle level of contrast as well: the psychological and cultural differences that separate the oppressed from the oppressors. The self-conscious response to the prospect of having one's picture taken reveals one's sense of self, and the responses of a depressed and a non-depressed person differ in an obvious way. The depressed person doesn't care one way or another; just as he or she loses interest in grooming, even in looking in the mirror. Many of the photographs of the most impoverished blacks reveal that loss of sense of self. Apathetic about having their pictures taken, they make no effort to change or improve their appearance. The standard response -- a smile, however forced -- is lacking. Theirs are blank faces, drained of energy. It is a common middle-class experience to mark holidays, birthdays, and new acquisitions with a photographic record. Their poses often conform to what they are used to seeing -- vacation photos, fashion photos. We recognize the familiar poses: the smiling family on the mansion porch, the middle-aged couple with drinks raised in mid-cocktail party, a woman stretched flirtatiously on a divan. 

The more unfamiliar lives of the impoverished are explored by Holdt. He shows us life among the cotton, tobacco, and fruit pickers of Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama. Holdt could share a cotton picker's shack if he turned over the four dollars he could earn each day. He found that these people are constantly in debt to the landowners, who also own the only supply stores in the area and overcharge them accordingly. Their extreme poverty leaves them apathetic and fearful, so they rarely protest or organize. They are trapped by their isolation and undereducation. Underlit photographs of their shacks, no better than large doghouses really, show them to be without running water, heat, and usually electricity. The inhabitants are, generally, mothers and their children or elderly people. Repeated images are of children asleep, five to a bed, an old person sitting by a kerosene lamp, and cheap dime-store prints of Jesus and Martin Luther King pinned side by side to a wall of corrugated iron. 

All this becomes more authentic to the viewer because Holdt involves us with the images through his descriptions of his specific interactions with these subjects. The photographs of crying, sickly children are made more real when accompanied by Holdt's interview with an old man who recalls the feeling of going to bed hungry in his own childhood. He follows an adolescent girl to an area of woods where she finds red clay. In the photographs she touches her mouth and the mouth of the child that she is carrying. She tells Holdt that she eats the dirt when she is hungry; she calls it sweet dirt, and so does her aunt. Holdt himself is the most articulate spokesman of the physical and psychological effects of this poverty. He tells of eating baked beans and cornbread every day in the shack, and describes the almost intolerable lack of space and privacy, the constant noise and cold. We identify with Holdt and cringe at the thought of ourselves in the same situation. 
Holdt also wants us to relate poverty to the larger context of the American culture that we are familiar with, and the way its message, spread through the media, affects the impoverished. The myth that anyone can "make it" in the United States if they are willing to work hard makes the American brand of poverty more psychologically crippling than it would be in a country with less materialistic values. The poor may swallow these myths and experience self-blame as a response to that belief. Holdt interfaces scenes of poverty with the images of advertising that spread (create?) these myths. Classic, sun-drenched images of the nuclear family beside its dream car advertise a bank's loan department. Accepting these myths may have a perverse effect on the poor, for whom the idea of equal opportunity and self-improvement is often a false belief. Holdt met a crippled black beggar on the street of a Southern town. He had begun to study law in his youth, with the intent of improving himself, but was stricken by polio and forced out on the streets. Still, he did not express bitterness or disgust with the system that caused his failure. He was grateful to Holdt for stealing for him a few books on the subject he was still interested in, ironically, business law. 

Holdt studied the psychological mark that racism leaves on whites as well. He interviewed an elderly Southern lady who laments the end of slavery because now she cannot satisfy her paternalistic love of blacks. Yet it must be a twisted sort of love. We see her black maid serving her cookies, and Holdt tells us that the woman pays her servants so little that they can barely afford a few articles of clothing. As if examining a prized family heirloom, this woman pores over an antique bill of sale of a slave. She finds an outlet for her paternalistic love, fittingly, through her "good works" with the local prison population. The poor whites, who feel more threatened by blacks and the prospect of their competition for jobs, respond with more straightforward hate. Holdt gained the confidence of one young man and photographed him in his Nazi regalia. He was able to attend, tape record, and photograph a Ku Klux Klan meeting, with the white-robed men grouped in a circle around a huge, burning cross. The speaker praises his audience in a nervous, evangelical tone, then proceeds to explain how Martin Luther King was not assassinated because, by definition, you can only assassinate a statesman, and that "three things you can't give a nigger are a black eye, a fat lip, and a job." In his photographs of the individual Klansmen, Holdt reveals their weakness, so that the viewer is left with both fear and pity towards these people. 

His intent to remain an observer allowed Holdt the opportunity to witness scenes such as the Klan meeting. But at certain times he acted less passively. For instance, he helped the American Indians smuggle weapons for the revolt at Wounded Knee. He found that personal relationships forced him into positions of responsibility and commitment as well. He became romantically involved with a poor black woman named Mary. With her only son, they shared a shack without plumbing and heat, but with the relative luxury of a working refrigerator. While he was away for a period of months, whites burned Mary's shack down, to punish her for living with a white man. Mary and her son managed to escape, but her brother, who had been visiting, perished in the fire. Holdt describes his moral anguish at having "crossed the line between victim and executioner." 

Holdt still maintains contact with Mary and others he was particularly attached to. He was very fond of a child called Linda, whose family was presented as one of the few impoverished families in which love and deep human bonds flourished despite the strains of their life. However, Holdt explained that this and the few other "sunshine stories" end unhappily. American Pictures is meant to be seen as an introduction to a multimedia show with which Holdt is presently touring the country. Apparently, this show is even more depressing than the film. Holdt confessed that someone in Sweden attempted suicide after seeing this show. 

It is Holdt's mission to alert people to these conditions, in the hope that they will follow up their anger with political action. The profits from the film go to a fund for poverty programs in the United States and Africa. Yet, clearly, Holdt aims to stimulate some fundamental change in society at large, a change in racist attitudes. The film will be fascinating and shocking to anyone who sees it. Fascinating because the viewer strains to understand Holdt's motivation and talent as a drifter; shocking for the depiction of repulsive conditions of poverty and racism made so real. 

LYDIA IACONO is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. 

 
 
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