Camilla Hjelm found her angels in a coffee bar. She took still photos of them, then sought them out to give them copies of her pictures. They became friends; the angels invited her home. In this film, she takes you with her. It’s a rambling, charming, hospitable and unpretentious journey.
Angels of Brooklyn delivers a stylish portrait of the lives of young black and Latino women living on welfare in the projects: single mothers, high school dropouts, ex-cons – if not always angelic, then gloriously human. What really makes this film work is the relationship developed by director/camerawoman Camilla Hjelm with her subjects. In the first sequence, Nicola remarks that people go and see a therapist just to have someone to talk to; Hjelm is not their therapist, she simply seems to be their friend – she lets the Angels talk, she lets us eavesdrop. Living in poverty, time is one thing these women have plenty of; the director responds by giving them her time and ours.
The film derives its pace from the rhythm of the characters’ lives: unhurried, laid back, with sync allowed to run long and sequences left to unfold in their own sweet time, punctuated by a sultry sax soundtrack. Mercifully free of choppy editing and the restless ‘docusoap’ camera style, Hjelm’s favourite shot seems to be a largely static take through the doorway, beautifully in keeping with the approach of the film. It makes for relentless viewing at times (two conversations going on simultaneously in a cramped room, with the TV on full blast in Spanish, the baby crying, the dog barking, and the phone ringing), but it convinces me as the authentic texture of these women’s lives.
It’s a refreshing break from the convention that the filmmaker should be invisible. Occasionally we hear the director’s side of the conversation, not just asking interview questions, but offering advice or sympathy. The characters address the camera directly, throwing asides at the director while they’re in dialogue with someone else on camera or appealing to the camera in the middle of a conversation. During an argument about her boyfriend’s alleged unfaithfulness (her damning evidence consists of seventeen missing condoms), Nicola yells at him, “You gonna lie on camera?!”
In a year awash with films about 9/11, it’s jarring to see the Twin Towers appear incidentally in the background of a shot. I can’t help reflecting that to the Angels of Brooklyn, the dispossessed of New York, already living precarious lives, the supposedly epoch-making events of September 11th made no real difference at all – beyond erasing an item on the skyline.
Hjelm and Zandvliet’s film portrays their lives without passing judgement, with immediacy, dignity and affection: an entertaining documentary and a fine achievement.