JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

In black-and-white video footage taken by social animators, the mayor tries to make a point during a Bridgeview community meeting.

“Who put the freeze on us?” asks an angry Bridgeview resident.

The mayor seems at a loss to answer the question.

After the meeting, Alderman Fred Beale remarks that “some people have to suffer” in a municipality of this size—and in this case, it may be Bridgeview that has to suffer.

Community leaders Otto Wittenberg and Alice Wilcox remark that the mayor’s brother has bought lots in Bridgeview for “the fantastic price of a hundred thousand dollars,” while at the same time, residents were told that “the land has no value, and the sooner people move out, the better.”

The camera pans from the river to a mill surrounded by trucks, a chaos of loose logs, and a gravel pit—what “used to be beautiful” is made ugly by industrial development, remarks Wittenberg.

“We the people of Bridgeview want to preserve this area for the people of Surrey to use for fishing or other recreational uses.” Class and environmental politics converge as the working class residents are recast not as those who must suffer, but as the vanguard of a movement to save the Fraser River.

Though the film was finished by 1976, the saga of the sewers dragged on for another couple of years, as Vander Zalm was elected to the provincial government as Minister of Human Resources (and later as Premier) and Ed McKitka became Mayor of Surrey.

This brief shot from the Surrey Planning office gestures toward the never realized films Pinney had intended to make about the formal planning process in local government.

Living with the River (1978) This multi-part series on the Fraser River directed by Norma Taite in collaboration with Barry Leach included half hour segments on the History of the Lower Fraser Valley, Access to the River, the Decline and Revival of Wildlife and Fishing on the River, and this episode on the Impact of Development.

 

 

Three scenes worth emphasizing

In a blurry black-and-white video sequence, shots of the Mayor, spluttering as he tries to defend himself at a Bridgeview committee meeting, are edited with a shot of a community member who emerges from the exasperated crowd to confront him. The camera returns to the Mayor for a reaction shot, jerkily zooming in to capture his uncertain face. This was the sort of footage salvaged from hours of process videos shot by the animators, and giving a feel of immediacy to the story as it unfolded. As the sequence concludes, dejected residents rising from their seats to disperse, the voice of Alderman Fred Beale is heard to comment that although the people “down there” are to be commended for their “esprit de corps,” he is looking at it from the point of view of the municipality as a whole.

“Unfortunately when you do something in a municipality of this size, some people have to suffer, and it may be in this case that the people of Bridgeview have to suffer.”

At one point, Pinney interviews Wittenberg and Wilcox on a vacant lot near their neighborhood. Wittenberg refers to a map he has showing “umpteen dozens of holding companies that have bought in here […] all the biggies.” When Pinney comments that the area is not supposed to be worth anything, Wittenberg agrees and adds,

“But then the mayor’s turned around, or not the mayor himself, but his brother, and they bought this piece of property that we’re standing on, and they paid the fantastic price of a hundred thousand dollars for it.”

Wilcox adds that she didn’t think any land in Bridgeview was of that value, “because everyone has told us the land has no value, and the sooner people move out, the better it will be for them.” This sequence is followed by a nonchalant Vander Zalm defending the rights of “these real estate people” to “go in there” since the land was a good investment. “That’s the system, it’s permitted, it’s allowed.” But whether in fact “this is council’s fault, no, I don’t agree,” he concludes, as though the “real estate people” and the council members are unrelated to each other.

In another scene, the camera pans from water lapping at a pebbly shore up to a mill surrounded by trucks, a chaos of loose logs, and a looming gravel pit. Wittenberg is heard to comment on how what used to be beautiful has been made ugly by industrial development. As his face comes into view, he announces that the people of Bridgeview want to

“preserve this area for the people of Surrey to use for fishing or other recreational uses because it’s actually the only piece of Fraser River foreshore where an access for the people could be made to the river.”

Scenes such as this contradict the assumption that class and environmental politics are necessarily at odds. In this case, at least, the working class residents of Bridgeview were fighting not only for their own basic services but for a cleaner waterfront that would benefit the whole municipality. In a rejoinder to Beale’s earlier remark, the residents of Bridgeview are here recast not as those who would have to “suffer” for the good of the larger community, but as the vanguard of a movement to save the Fraser River (and those who lived south of it) from an industrial demise.

Overall, the dramatic tension of Some People depends on the question of whether the community will get their sewers. Beyond that, the question of social change involves the extent to which these same citizens, and others like them (presumably future audiences of the film) will have learned how to take the most effective role in government decision-making processes in the future.

However, to the extent that the film also reveals the self-serving motivations and actions of local politicians, who in this case seem to be invested in the promotion of industrial development at all costs (and to be profiting from it), one must also ask whether the “social change” sought by the film includes changes in the behavior of elected officials, and their relationship to developers and land speculators. Though it might seem naïve to hope that local government will “change,” that is, consider the long term impact of encroaching on the natural and agricultural resources of the municipality (and the province), then at least the goal of a film like Some People might perhaps be to inform the average citizen about the complexities of what they have to contend with—i.e. how best to evaluate the true interests of their elected officials (see through their public statements) and then figure out how to influence them to respond to the needs even of the least privileged of their constituencies.

Subsequent historical events lent an additional ironic tang to the film for B.C. viewers who happened to see it: Vander Zalm became premier of the province in 1986, and for the next five years chipped away at many of the environmentally sound land use innovations instituted by the NDP in the seventies.

Conclusion

One might ask whether a film like Some People Have to Suffer amounts to nothing more than coaching low-income homeowners to compete with the NIMBY[23] [open endnotes in new window] tactics engaged by more well-heeled citizens. That the Surrey Land Use Project sought to go beyond the immediate problem of how to keep undesirable development out of one’s own backyard is reflected in Pinney’s plans for subsequent film projects. In a report anticipating the third and final phase of the project, Pinney described its “most important objective” as the development of “a series of films designed to provide an overview on land management.” These films would cover:

  • the citizen and citizen participation planning
  • government, particularly the role of municipal and regional government
  • the planner and the formal planning process
  • the developer, the speculator, land development by the private sector (Pinney to Hay, April 28, 1975)

Bringing out the “structural relationship” among the various constituencies involved, the films were to provide “communities throughout Canada with a perspective on the dynamics of land use planning.” Some People was meant, thus, to be the first in this series, whose goal would be to make visible, as Molotch would put it, the very “distributive matters” (“who, in material terms, gets what, where, and how”) that are normally kept out of public discourse (Molotch, 313). Regrettably, his ambitious proposal never came to fruition, as the Challenge for Change program wound down and funds dried up.

Pinney and his colleagues made certain that the Community Communications Centre would outlive the NFB’s initial presence at Douglas College, however, continuing to serve the needs of the local citizenry. This they did by structuring it, from the beginning, as an “outreach center” rather than an institute, and stressing that it “must be perceived as a catalytic action-oriented facility that is interested in helping people define their own priorities and interests” (Pinney to Day, 18 April 1975, letter p.2). The CCC would continue to draw from college resources and faculty expertise but remain autonomous from its formal administrative and curricular structure.[24] Under the directorship of Jim Gillis, the CCC continued its operations until 1983, when it was dissolved and many of its activities subsumed under the auspices of the Continuing Education Program, which Gillis also directed.[25]

The land use mandate of the project was kept alive by Norma Taite and Barry Leach, founder of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Douglas College. Together, they produced a six-part video series that explored the history of the Fraser River, and argued for measures that would reverse the industrial damage being done to it. Thanks to the groundwork already established by the Challenge for Change program, they secured co-sponsorship for the series from several local cable stations, each of which aired the final program in 1978.

Working from the Community Communications Center, Taite, Sellers, Gillis and Driscoll drifted away from a strict focus on land use issues, and even from the practice of “social animation” insofar as it entailed the rallying and empowerment of discrete citizens’ groups. Projects included a video titled “Cheryl Rides a Pony,” for use as a training device in the therapeutic riding movement, and another video demonstrating the need for wheelchair access in all public arenas. What they see now as one of their most valuable accomplishments has little to do with “fighting city hall,” and more with private social enterprise: the development of a series of large cards with images and words, for use by teachers and other educators to help children recognize (and report) inappropriate touching. Called “C.A.R.E.” (Child Abuse Research and Education, or in its most recent guise, “Challenge Abuse through Respect Education”) the program grew from a locally implemented educational packet to an internationally distributed kit, including instructional videos for teachers and original song recordings for children, and self-funded through marketing to institutions (most recently, the Red Cross and the Catholic Church). Interestingly, Sellers and Driscoll see the Community Communications Centre, in retrospect, as “an animation center that became what in small business you call an incubation center […] for social enterprise” (Driscoll, Interview, 2010). Jim Sellers notes in retrospect:

“What was truly remarkable [about C.A.R.E.] is that elected representatives of all the major political parties and agencies left, right, and centre (including the RCMP) were equally involved in its development.” (E-mail, 10/21/2011).

The shift in terminology to terms like “social enterprise” mirrors a more generalized shift in approach to “social change” as the decades unfolded: from an era of Saul Alinsky-style grassroots organizing, where citizens’ groups were trained in how to confront elected officials who might not have their best interests in mind, to a more recent era dominated by privately developed social enterprise projects. Small-scale local animation, you might say, was being supplanted by social initiatives that sought to compete in the global marketplace. Even Chris Pinney has shifted away from his grassroots filmmaking days; when I tracked him down in 2010, he was the Director of Research and Policy at the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.[26]

But the Surrey Project’s early focus on land use is still relevant even today, as the term “Vancouverism” has come, for some urban planners and architects, to represent an ideal of city planning, at once livable and sustainable.[27] The story of the Challenge for Change program in Surrey suggests that “Vancouverism” may inevitably rely for its sustainability on a nearby “Surreyism”—that is, a suburban service area whose political custodians too readily cater not only to developers eager for a profit, but to a more urban metropolitan neighbor seeking to distance itself from the less appetizing, but necessary components of sustainable city living. In the words of one urban geographer:

“the contention that Vancouver represents an urban paradise is not without challenge […]. Major concerns around growing income inequality, lack of affordable housing, uncertain economic prospects and a large ecological footprint raise questions around its sustainability and whether all of its citizens find it so lovable. Furthermore, outside of the City of Vancouver, much of the metropolitan region resembles the sprawling, automobile-focused development found elsewhere in North America.” (Owens, 3)[28]

What remains valuable today in the Challenge for Change project in Surrey is not only that an oppressed people came to find their voice through self-representation; nor even that they were able to objectify the officials who were exploiting them. Nor was it that during the official presence of the NFB in Surrey, dozens of citizens’ groups solved their most pressing immediate social and material problems (indeed, Bridgeview did, after all, get sewers, though forty years later, they are again in need of replacement).[29] Rather, it was, as Jim Sellers has noted, that local citizens continued for at least another ten years to enjoy access to the know-how, resources, and expertise necessary to take an ongoing role in the decision-making processes regarding the very “livability” of their natural and built environment, precisely because

“Pinney and Clemson and CFC had the foresight to get their process vested in the community via the college, creating the CCC [Community Communications Center]. As it embedded itself, it evolved to serve other community needs. By lasting a decade, this ‘experiment’ in activist-participant media moved beyond being just an experiment.” (Sellers, e-mail, 10/21/2011).

Intervening in the larger issues of urban planning for this very desirable West Coast region, the Surrey Project managed to reveal the hidden mechanism of suburban growth, provided its constituents with the tools to make clear who was served by it, and who was expected to “suffer” as a consequence. What we might bring into the present moment is the insight that technological advances in digital media do not necessarily bring with them the power to discern, in all its complexity, what is wrong with one’s world, and the expertise to redress it. For this, one needs the kind of human intervention provided by the Surrey Project’s animators, and (just as importantly) the material resources to support them.

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