________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 19. . . .January 18, 2013



Gerry Flahive (Producer). Silva Basmajian (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2009.
100 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 0109 244.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Julie Chychota.

*** ½ /4



This anthology is a frank and invaluable resource for nurses, doctors, social workers, policy makers, social activists and patient advocacy organizations... and anyone interested in how media and medicine can work together to change lives. (DVD case, back cover.)


Hand-held is a documentary anthology intent on dismantling stereotypes: it testifies to the difficulties and discrimination that homeless persons encounter in the healthcare system, and with their participation, it begins to propose solutions. The various videos record the faces, voices, and experiences of individuals who are homeless or have been homeless, so that the statistics on homelessness can no longer remain abstract and impersonal for viewers. The video project was conceived to encourage widespread dialogue, which it successfully has done, initially in Toronto, then nationally and internationally.

     The anthology contains a total of nine films grouped into sections of three, four, and two, respectively. The DVD is closed captioned, but the captions may not display on all video players. Fortunately, the case’s back cover includes a clearly laid-out table of contents because its internal naming convention favors a confusing duplication. The three main section headings appear prominently set off against banners of equal proportion on the main menu: “I Was Here”, “Street Health Stories” and “Hand-Held”. Within the first grouping, “I Was Here”, viewers will find a nine-minute photoblog feature by the same name, an 11-minute film called “We’re Still Here”, and a five-minute compilation of “Participants’ videos”. This section introduces Keneisha, Adrienne, Meghan, Jess, and Nicole, all young mothers, all formerly homeless, whom National Film Board (NFB) facilitators equipped with digital cameras and media workshops. An exhibit of their videography was subsequently launched at Toronto City Hall, with community members and politicians in attendance. The closing words of this section belong to Keneisha as she concisely sums up the purpose of the exhibit: “We’re not homeless anymore, but we’re still here pushing for social change.”

     In phase two, armed with digital cameras, and having received training in portrait photography and interviewing techniques, the “I Was Here” participants become peer researchers, charged with collecting images and stories of homeless people in conjunction with a Street Health survey. The results appear within the anthology’s second major division, “Street Health Stories”. Here viewers find a nine-minute film that conjoins statistics with clips from “22 Street Health Mini Stories”, the nearly hour-long film that follows. In fact, the mini stories represent only a fraction of the 368 street people surveyed in total. In “Impact of Stories”, the third component of this section, project organizers and peer researchers recount how the survey was implemented. Katerina Cizek, Filmmaker-in-Residence at St. Michael’s Hospital, remarks that “the power of a story and the power of a picture, combined with the power of a number, makes such an irrefutable case for the dismal state of healthcare for the homeless in this city.” Yet this eight-and-a-half minute segment concludes with on-screen text that forecasts hope: ”Street Health Stories is being used internationally as an advocacy tool with politicians, academics and health care professionals.” The fourth and final piece, “Street Health Trailer”, encapsulates a minute’s worth of sound bites from the “Street Health Stories” film, for promotional purposes.

     The third division, "Hand-Held”, examines the intersection of health care providers and recipients through two short films, “Unexpected” and “[un]conference”. According to on-screen text, the former is a “video bridge” between two groups, one consisting of hospital personnel, the other of young mothers, their clients. The groups were interviewed separately, and then both were shown all the footage afterwards; reactions to the opposite side’s observations were captured also, and honest discussions ensued. From there, the “[un]conference” opened up the conversation still further by inviting a diverse group of health care professionals, academics, community officials, homeless, and formerly homeless individuals to view “Unexpected” and brainstorm solutions to improve health care to people on the streets. The “[un]conference” film captures some of the key moments of this meeting of minds.

     Under “Resources to download”, accessible from within the main menu or from within the “Hand-Held” menu, viewers will find URLs to the NFB’s Website that further explain the Filmmaker-in-Residence program. For Cizek, it resurrects the values embodied in Challenge for Change, an NFB program of the 1960s and 1970s that included the subjects of documentaries as active participants in the filmmaking process. For examples of footage from that earlier era, this reviewer recommends the NFB’s Léonard Forest: Filmmaker & Poet, while Still Longshots and this ability constitute two more recent documentaries in the same vein. Hand-held operates according to the same collaborative approach whereby marginalized or disenfranchised individuals have an opportunity to be seen and heard.

     The goal of Hand-held, emphasizes workshop coordinator Dawn Wilkinson, was not to entertain nor to educate, but rather to initiate dialogue between health care workers and patients. Still, for viewers not yet engaged in that conversation, Hand-held is educational. It doesn’t merely relay statistics; it relates them to real people. For instance, at the beginning of each of the “22 Street Health Mini Stories”, the name of the person surveyed appears on-screen in white against a black background; since it is the sole focal point for approximately 10 seconds, this measure ensures the name will make an impression on the viewer. Still photos of the interviewee follow, accompanied by text that denotes that person’s age and the length of time he or she has been homeless. The youngest person surveyed is 25, the oldest 65, with many in their forties. The amount of time they’ve been homeless ranges from two-and-a-half months to 23 years. They are more than strictly numbers, however, as they demonstrate by the different expressions and tones in their visages and voices as they relate the details of their circumstances.

      Mark, for instance, was training to be a concert pianist until he sliced his hand in an accident with a stained-glass window. He received plastic surgery, compliments of his parents, but lost most of the sensation in that hand; on top of that, he lost his scholarship to Juilliard. At age 48, he has been homeless for five months, and although he still plays the piano, he struggles with his mental health. Susan, meanwhile, is 45, a diabetic, and has been homeless one year. She had a service dog to alert her to epileptic seizures, but they were separated when Susan was transported to hospital by ambulance with a post-surgery infection. She has searched for her dog without success. Forty-two-year-old Lorrie has been homeless for 17 years. She notes that it’s possible for someone to work a nine-to-five job and still be homeless. Lorrie’s daughter and grandchildren were murdered, but she has been unable to obtain counseling, and so she resorts to street drugs to cope. As Jess, one of the young mothers/peer researchers, pronounces, the stories she and her colleagues uncovered are “heart-wrenching”.

     Within the portion of the population surveyed in the documentary, physical and mental health issues included diabetes, anorexia, anxiety, arthritis, epilepsy, depression, abuse, addictions, tumors, infections, stabbings, beatings, and chronic pain. Furthermore, the restrictive temporary housing available exacerbates these health issues. For example, shelters turn people out during the day, an action which translates to no sick bed for someone who falls ill. Ill or not, however, persons turned out of the shelters for the day have few affordable options in terms of transportation or recreation. Walking is an inexpensive source of both, but takes its toll on arthritic joints. Also, although shelters may provide food, it may not prove suitable for those with special dietary requirements, such as a diabetic or someone with a ripped esophagus. In some cases, people are relocated to different shelters after three months, meaning that they must leave behind any social connections they’ve established and start over. Hand-held demonstrates unequivocally that systemic changes are overdue.

     Hand-held is valuable viewing because it treats its subjects with dignity, allowing them to speak and to have their views count. It promotes empathy and will be of interest to many teenagers and adults, but perhaps, in particular, to high school and university students who wish to enter careers in medicine, nursing, health sciences, social work, law, politics, criminology, peace and conflict studies, and media and communication studies. Those who would like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to redefine “security of the person” to include a right to housing, and oblige the state to ensure that right, could point to Hand-held for reasons why.

Highly Recommended.

Julie Chychota lives in Ottawa, ON, and facilitates communication for individuals with hearing disabilities by capturing speech as text on her laptop.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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