Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Must-See Cinema: The Exiles (1961)

In 1956 USC film student Kent MacKenzie shot a short film documenting the impending displacement of pensioners from the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, which was slated for "urban renewal", i.e., the destruction of ramshackle apartment buildings and down-at-the heels Victorian houses to make way for "progress" -- banks, office buildings and eventually the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

MacKenzie was so taken with the area and its residents that he returned two years later to film The Exiles, a full-length documentary look at the Native American residents of Bunker Hill, who were in a kind of exile from their tribes and reservation homelands. It took three years of filming and editing to produce this film. It took so long to document what is, on screen, just one night in the lives of his subjects that several of the principle characters were no longer around by the end, and the film had to be re-edited accordingly -- a couple of characters we meet early on have just disappeared by the end of the movie. In reality, they had gone to prison, a fate that has befallen so many "Indians" who are in exile from their homes.

The Exiles is one of those glimpses into a life that no longer exists. It's sad to think that, even by the time the film was released, it's likely that most of these buildings had already been flattened and the residents displaced.

You will recognize Bunker Hill when you see it. The Angel's Flight funicular railway and the 2nd Street Tunnel are both iconic landmarks in many Hollywood movies of the 40s and 50s and later. Television, too.

I first saw this in one of those film classes that I took in college ("Documenting Urban America" or something like that). I loved the movie, and I had almost given up hope of ever seeing it again.

But ... Fast forward to the DVD revolution and the advent of Netflix. It's now available on DVD from Netflix. The disk also includes as a bonus MacKenzie's student film, Bunker Hill (referenced above).

More reading:
· The Exiles on the IMDB.
· Angel's Flight Railway in movies and television (IMDB).
· 2nd Street Tunnel in movies and television (IMDB).