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#49 – September, 2008 Newsletter

I've been a street nurse in Toronto for 20 years. I have received the Atkinson Economic Justice Award which permits me to pursue my passions for nursing and working on homelessness and housing issues. In this newsletter I hope to report on my activities, create a link to a broader group of individuals who care about these social issues and encourage critical debate.

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Treeless Mountain by So Yong KimHomelessness is like a Treeless Mountain

This is the newsletter that my editor Bob Crocker dreads the most – the one that I write while I’m in the throes of attending the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Some film, whether it’s the classic Peter Pan’ or Spike Lee’s provocative When the Levees Broke’ always enters into my story.

(See bottom of newsletter for links to some past film issues.)

Yes, TIFF is full of excesses and egos and it has become increasingly elitist, exclusionary and expensive. Then that moment happens when you see a film (or films) that inspires and moves you or they inform and challenge you.

One of those challenging films for me this year is Treeless Mountain by Korean born So Yong Kim. I read programmer Giovanna Fulvi’s review of Treeless Mountain in TIFF’s program book. She describes the film as having themes of loss and abandonment. I almost didn’t pick this movie - it sounded too hard to watch.

“Six-year-old Jin and her younger sister Bin live on the edge of disaster, but they are not aware of it. In the small apartment where they reside with their single mother, the menacing sounds of the outer world disturb their precarious cocoon. One day (ominously foreshadowed by Jin wetting the bed), their mother packs all their belongings. For Jin, the days of going to school are over. Mommy is gone, leaving her and Bin in a hostile home with their alcoholic Big Aunt and a piggy bank to slowly fill with tinkling coins and shining hopes. Once the bank is full, their mother will be back.

Moving without being melodramatic, Treeless Mountain is a subtle film told mainly through the eyes of Jin, who is old enough to feel abandoned but not old enough to understand why her mother left or what the repercussions of her absence might be.

Kim pays particular attention to creating an authentic portrait of the girls' emotions. Hee Yeon Kim gives an excellent performance as the caring older sister who is forced into maturity, while little Bin has a touching, almost haunting, presence throughout the film, dressed in a princess costume that is slowly discolouring and wearing out.”

Circumstances, and we don’t really know what they are, force this mother to put her two young daughters into the hands of her sister-in-law ‘Big Aunty’ for care. We then witness intimate scenes of subtle and not so subtle hurt and neglect. The physical and emotional damage inflicted on the two little girls is both swift and accumulative.

In the Q and A following the screening I was jolted when an audience member asked the filmmaker “which one were you?” It was a reminder to me that the filmmaker was inspired by her own childhood memories. Even more shocking was to hear the filmmaker’s response to a question on how she found the amazing child actors – the youngest was living in foster care and given the verbal hints she is still in a precarious situation – in real life.

I was also taken aback when a female audience member commented that “the girls seemed so protected – they weren’t really hurt.” Another asked whether, in Korean culture today, people in the community would notice and be aware if little children were left so vulnerable.

Audience discomfort seemed to turn to voyeurism, examining the issue as a documentary on Korean culture rather than a film about the issues of loss, hurt and the neglect of children. Sadly, hurting children is a universal phenomenon, one we should not be proud of, especially when it happens so close to home.

I’ve had a number of conversations with folks since seeing the film. I tell them the film made me think about Katelynn Sampson, the seven year old Toronto girl who was murdered this summer. Hers was the first funeral for a child I had ever attended. The song Concrete Angel which was played at the funeral was bold and blunt – the lyrics about a battered child that died. Like the children in the film, Katelynn’s mother placed her child in the care of a friend, an act sanctioned by the courts. We will not know for some time (if ever) the circumstances that led to Katelynn’s death. There will be a trial and likely years will pass before an inquest is held, where recommendations will be made by a jury and will likely be ignored by politicians.  

The film’s title Treeless Mountain refers to the mound of dirt and rubble that the two girls stand on, looking for the return of their mother. The phrase ‘Treeless Mountain’ also suggests the unnatural, what shouldn’t be. Like: a community without resources, a family without support, a house that is not a home, a funeral for a child.

The Toronto audience reaction to Treeless Mountain reflected what I’ve heard across the country during both my Atkinson fellowship and my national book tour for Dying for a Home. Family and child homelessness is not known, it is not seen. Despite mounds of academic research that has addressed the cognitive and emotional damage that homelessness causes to children; despite statistics that have counted and identified the growing numbers of homeless families; despite the solutions (affordable housing, higher social assistance rates, a more sustainable minimum wage, childcare, etc) identified by advocates, homelessness remains invisible, hidden, unnoticed, out of sight and unseen.

When I was nine years old my main preoccupations leading up to September were about going back to school – whether I should get navy or white canvas running shoes, the colour of my new pencil case and saddle bag, and how I could stretch as much baseball into after school hours before our 5 pm family dinner. I didn’t know about homelessness.

Today I do. I am currently the Executive Producer on a film about homeless children and families across Canada, working with renowned filmmaker Laura Sky. We didn’t know how dire the situation was for children.

Nothing could have prepared us to witness Canadian children waiting in line to sleep on a church basement floor, carrying their possessions in small hockey bags, hanging on to parents who had no home to offer them. The children were quiet, tired and subdued. Exact figures are hard to arrive at, but a very conservative estimate puts the number of homeless children in Canada at 22,500.

We have finished filming in Calgary and are now working with families in Sault Ste. Marie, Hamilton and Toronto. The film features and gives voice to children and their parents. Home Safe will provide a tool for organizing, policy and community development for years to come.

This September there are tens of thousands of children, some of them 9 years old, either literally homeless or financially homeless (living with poverty in substandard and decrepit housing) who have headed back to school, maybe a new school.

Back to school for these kids may be from a shelter, a church basement program, a motel room, or from a two bedroom apartment they share with 3 other families.

For these children it will likely mean experiencing bullying, poor grades, no homework space and no sleepovers. It may mean not being missed if they don’t show up for class for a few weeks. It means crying to sleep.

So far our federal election hasn’t really been about anything. Maybe it should be.


Past issues with a film section:

Thanks to Bob Crocker for editing, Anthony Rapoport for layout, design and web support