At first glance, Gary Burns and Jim Brown’s “Radiant City” might seem more like a mockumentary than a documentary

Jerry White

Jerry White is a professor in Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada, and also President of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies.

It centres on a fictional suburb of Calgary called Evergreen and is basically a portrait of its fictional residents. These residents are interviewed in a documentary style, but their fictional quality becomes pretty clear early on.

But in addition to these fictional interviews, Burns and Brown draw upon straightforwardly non-fictional material. This includes footage of prominent thinkers about urban planning and community talking about the rise of suburbia; Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell features prominently, as does architectural guru James Howard Kunstler. The filmmakers also spike the work with factual statistics about mass transit, biking and walking, and so on. This is the one element of the film that I find slightly dodgy, since it’s not always clear if the statistics on offer are Canadian, North American, American, or international. At one point statistics produced by the “National Center for Biking and Walking” are cited, but there’s no indication at all that the “National” there means USA (the Center, as its spelling indicates, is based in Bethesda, Maryland). Thus the statistics are presumably describing the United States, whose experience of suburbia (or anything else, for that matter) is far from universal.

At the end of the film, Burns and Brown pull back from their fictional documentary and interview the actors playing these suburbanites; most of them lead lives close to those of their characters, and they all have nuanced ideas about what it’s like to live in a suburban environment. Although their tone, like the tone of the film generally, is critical (although I’d say the film overall is more critical than these real interviews at the end), nothing in “Radiant City” is ever cynical or self-satisfied, in the way that too many Hollywood portrayals of suburban life are.

Indeed, this film is much in the mould of Burns’ feature-fiction films, some of which (such as The Suburbanators, or Kitchen Party) deal with suburbia, and some of which (such as “waydowntown”, or The Trouble with Fear) engage with the contemporary urban landscape in a comparably melancholy and critical way. All of these are very much Calgary movies (even though “The Trouble with Fear” was partially shot in Montreal), films that are formed by and highly critical of Canada’s most out-of-control boomtown. By bringing a clear-headed rationalism and an openness to the contributions of his participants, Burns’ work sometimes seems to redeem the place.

 


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