Film Review - 'Lost Angels'

Posted on: 06 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

Thomas Napper's new documentary pulls no punches but bleeds humanity

A lot going on in Skid Row

From the beginning, Thomas Napper’s imagery in his new documentary, Lost Angels, is stark. Los Angeles' Skid Row, a sort of dumping ground for drug addicts, homeless, mentally ill, disfigured and the out and out unlucky, wallows in Dickensian squalor and muted optimism, yet finds itself wilting under a stark blue sky and the relentless unforgiving glare of the sun, in the midst of great wealth and banal optimism.

There are other contradictions: here we have a city of hideous contrasts, where the prophet of New York's ever-so-slightly discredited Zero Tolerance/Broken Windows strategy wages a war on the Row with disproportionate police harassment while the whiter, nicer, richer parts of town have a perpetual party.

Elsewhere, gentrification risks driving poor people out of their homes, while the dispossessed and mentally ill face either sleeping on the streets or in prisons, fast becoming latter-day mental hospitals. It's a kafka-esque trap, whereby the homeless break the law by being homeless but have nowhere else to go, informed by a callous attitude towards these “unreformable, lost people” that's more 1811 than 2011.

And yet, Skid Row soldiers on. The people there are resigned but unbroken, and while left to rot, are looked after by charities like Midnight MissionLAMP and LACAN who pick up the pieces with military precision. It may be “an open air asylum” where street drugs are often a better alternative to prescription drugs, but it's also where people look after each other, sweep the streets, form their own police (mainly to keep an eye on the LAPD and private security who operate in the area), feed feral cats and pigeons, and even find a way out, whether it's through reconciliation with one's children, or redemption for a former Olympic Silver Medallist, almost destroyed by his spectacular fall from grace, or simply by finding someone to love you.

The film is an effective polemic, capturing the humanity of the participants and making a strong argument for places like the Row to exist – after all, it makes good sense, stopping the building of shelters that cost far more, or prisons which are even more expensive. There is also something deeply immoral, or perhaps even sinister, about wanting all these people to finally disappear. For all the hyperbole behind LA's 'Safer Cities Initiative', it comes across more as something privileged people with jobs and power do to those who have next to nothing.

True, you could accuse the film of picking as its 'stars' the more filmable and charismatic of the Row, though you'd be hard-pressed to find such un-airbrushed people given a platform anywhere else. And it is certainly a polemic, with the opposing view – that cities should be clean, culturally homogeneous and well-trimmed – disparaged non-stop, though it does give one pragmatic patrol officer a fair hearing.

You can't, however, really argue with a documentary that's got someone called 'General Dogon' on perpetual guard or one couple's rather bizarre but sincere common law marriage. It's too real to ever be made up. The film can also be neatly summed up by one man's prized possession - a scavenged coffee jug. The meaning is implicit; finding what's truly valuable amidst the chaos of the big city is the most important thing of all.

Read our interview with director Thomas Napper HERE. Or go to the film's official web site for more details!

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Alexander Hay

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