Los Angeles is without a doubt the most visually documented city in the world. But it is also one of the least known or truly understood. What is this place we call L.A.? Besides all the Hollywood stuff, what is its history and culture? How do we make sense of it amidst all the glittered sidewalks, scientologists, palm trees, car chases, sunset strips and skid rows?
This is one of the questions raised each year at the City of Angels Film Festival, held in Hollywood’s Director’s Guild theater and hosted by various Christian universities and organizations in the Los Angeles area. The festival, which got its start after the Rodney King riots brought the city to its knees in 1992, is a distinctly L.A. festival that has always focused on films with spiritual vitality and in recent years has also probed deeper into the heart of the place of L.A.
This was evidenced last night at the opening night of this year’s festival. The films screened—The Garden (a 2008 best documentary Oscar nominee) and The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie’s recently restored, largely forgotten classic from 1962)—are both very vivid documents of the city of L.A. They are not just films set in this city, but films about this city; and watching them reminded me of why I love living here so much, and why I love cinema. The Garden documents the struggle of immigrant farmers in South Central L.A., whose community garden was repossessed by the city a few years ago, setting off a firestorm of controversy and protest that (among other things) brought out celeb activists like Daryl Hannah and Zack de la Rocha. The film is a raw and unpretentious documentary (though not without clear political allegiances) that presents us with the oft-unseen plight of the immigrant communities of urban Los Angeles. Say what you will about the politics of the film, but as a thoroughly “L.A.” time capsule of a specific episode in this city’s storied history, the film is a treasure.
The Exiles is even more of a treasure. This 1962 film—unseen by all but the luckiest few filmgoers—has recently been resurrected, restored, and will soon be released on DVD. A classic of the American New Wave, with strongly neo-realist tendencies, The Exiles brings us back to a time and place (a community of Native Americans in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of downtown L.A. circa 1960) that is now completely vanished from this city’s history. Few remember this place, and watching this film it’s hard to imagine that this world ever really existed in the first place. It’s haunting, gripping, visceral. The black and white photography of “urban exile” Native Americans living one 12-hour, frolicsome night in beatnik bars, expressionist streets and dizzying neon capitalism is a singular gem of cinematic historical documentation.
These films reminded me that, of all its other merits, cinema at its best can offer us unparalleled archival access to the concrete people, places, and circumstances of an always-moving, forever changing world. The “taking in of truth” that the camera provides us, organized by the curator hands of filmmakers with vision, opens up the reality and objective thing-ness of what otherwise are only abstract memory mirages or arbitrary imaginings of “how things were.”