Filmmaking | Interviews

Day in the Life

1 Jan , 2004  

Written by Genevieve Butler | Posted by:

Cyberart documentary 'Symphony of a City' explores the many faces and voices of Bostonians.

Documentary filmmakers Liz Canner and John Ewing are concerned about the issue of housing in this city. Their cyberart documentary "Symphony of a City" features a day in the life of eight Bostonians selected to illustrate the realities of living here now, and the participants themselves represent the diversity of the city’s residents.

Each of the participants, who were nominated by over 50 community groups in Greater Boston, wore a ‘headcam’ and became image-makers just by going about their daily business. The headcams recorded what they saw, transforming subject into storyteller. It was important to the filmmakers that the eight participants were never objectified, thus they removed themselves from the shooting process, enabling the wearers of the headcams to decide and capture the content of the piece.

The product of each participant varied. Sixteen-year-old City Council Candidate Kimberly Chacon (the youngest person to run for public office in the country) of Jamaica Plain, took the opportunity to schedule her day, ensuring that her message would be heard. She was among the four participants in the ‘Community Building’ portion of the piece. Four others, including a rich landlord, a housing lawyer, an "at risk" tenant, and a homeless student, provided the footage for the ‘Housing’ portion of the piece. Though Chacon may have been alone in her particularly self-conscious interpretation of the project, each of the participants created a unique view of the city and the issues.

The directors juxtaposed the videos submitted by the eight participants, and thus the complexity of the issues and diversity of Bostonians became clear. For instance, Canner and Ewing chose to put the images generated by millionaire landlord John Coppola’s headcam along with those of Mike Murray, a homeless University of Massachusetts at Boston student. The two men could not be more different: Murray has been living in Boston homeless shelters for 10 years, moving unnoticed through the city’s public spaces all day, every day; Coppola begins every day in his home in Brookline and spends most of his days in private spaces, spaces he owns. Coppola moves through Boston’s residential spaces, sitting in meetings, and Murray "brushes his teeth in the public bathroom of MacDonald’s every morning," Canner explained. Murray exemplifies the issue turned crisis of housing in Boston, and Coppola, nominated to participate by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, was a critical opponent of rent control, active in the campaign that ended it.

On the other end of what many people have come to see as among the city’s most important and passionate battles, was Jeffrey Purcell. He has made it his business to preserve affordable housing in Boston, and worked as a tireless advocate for the poor, elderly, and disabled. Among his clients at the time of the making of "Symphony of a City," were residents of the South End artists’ building the Piano Factory, ‘at-risk’ tenants who face tremendous rent increases. Two of the Piano Factory artists represented by Purcell are featured in the project; sculptor Barbara Ward Armstrong was the fourth ‘Housing’ headcam wearer. She and her husband Howard "Louie Blue" Armstrong are elderly, low-income artists, and represent Boston’s most vulnerable citizens. These participants were selected after a lengthy and thorough process of nominations by various city organizations and training, and represent a real, if shocking, cross-section of the population in the context of the housing crisis.

Canner and Ewing also designed a contrast of four very different interpretations of community involvement in the "Community Building" portion of the project. Two women, two men, some involved in local government, and one choosing to work outside of that structure, participated. Along with the project’s youngest participant, Kimberly Chacon was an elected official and longtime community activist. Chuck Turner, elected to the Boston City Council in 1999, has fought racism in Boston since the 1960’s, always in support of constructive organization in Roxbury and other Boston neighborhoods, and in opposition to compromises of the unity he has worked to protect. Serene Wong’s role as a community organizer was a grass-roots effort: a resident of Boston’s Mass Pike Towers, she and other tenants succeeded in reclaiming control of their apartments through a resident’s fight against the landlords. The fourth participant in the "Community Building" part of the project has worked individually and in government. Alan D. Solomontis has served as National Finance Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and for the National and Community Service under President Clinton, and is currently a philanthropist and political activist.

The diversity of experience represented in the piece may recall 1927 film, "Berlin: Symphony of a Great City," from which Canner said, "we borrowed the title." Walter Ruttman’s work captured the zeitgeist of early 20th century Berlin, showing well-fed industrialists promenading down streets among clerks riding trams to work, passing destitute Berliners sleeping on benches. For it’s day, the work is quite experimental in content and form.

"Symphony of a City" has pursued that tradition and employed an experimental approach suited to today’s technology and the contemporary issues of this city. The earlier work, when compared with Canner and Ewing’s film, dwarfs the people in scale and significance; the cinematography is beautiful but limited to the perspective of the filmmaker; and the symphony is made by the machine of the metropolis, not by its residents. Conversely, Canner and Ewing empowered the residents of Boston by giving them the means to show images of the city through their own eyes, and the opportunity to speak about its relative ‘greatness.’

Canner said that the experiences of the participants were generally positive, and that the various organizations who were involved in the project are continuing their work, but working together more than before, as a result of their participation. She remains in touch with the individual participants, and the project has sustained life since it’s premiere projection on the cold concrete of City Hall in 2001. She is currently at work on a project as rooted in social issues as "Symphony of a City," this time focusing on issues of race and racist. "Symphony of a City," was born out of her commitment to social change; the idea to deal specifically with housing came directly to her from the people it affected most. Canner found that when asked, Bostonians mentioned housing more often than any other issue, and today the project’s website serves as a resource to residents and educators on these critical issues. The site,, contains information about the issues, the participants and the project, and is the sole forum where the footage can be viewed.

"Symphony of a City" was produced and directed by Liz Canner and John Ewing. For more information about the project, and to watch footage filmed by the eight participants of Symphony of A City, visit Liz Canner in a documentary filmmaker, and a Massachusetts native. She now lives in New York.

'Symphony of a City' was produced and directed by Liz Canner and John Ewing. For more information about the project, and to watch footage filmed by the eight participants of Symphony of A City, visit Liz Canner in a documentary filmmaker, and a Massachusetts native. She now lives in New York.

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