Blending the experimental filmmaking with a degree of detail oriented accuracy that Frederick Wiseman would appreciate, the black and white docudrama Public Hearing (screening for free this Thursday at 9:15pm at Toronto’s Revue Cinema as part of the ReFocus screening series) is exactly what it says on the tin and so much more bubbling under the surface. Literally just the transcript of a town council meeting acted out like a barely more set dressed staging of Our Town, director James N. Kienitz Wilkins finds dramatic truth at the heart of the North American struggle between fiscal independence and the personal desire for convenience.
The titular hearing in question occurred in Alleghany, New York, which if anyone has passed through it knows it’s the kind of town that has an entire county named after it but it still has a decidedly small town, agrarian and rural vibe despite its small pockets of small town charm and strip mall convenience. While most public meetings would probably go by with minimal debate and hullabaloo, Wilkins focuses on a corporation and a fight already known to many counties across the world. In the corner of an already existing business park, corporate giant Wal-Mart wants to expand their operations; razing a defunct tanning salon and a Sam Goody’s music to create one of their Supercentres that would include a tire and oil auto bay, an expanded garden centre, and most controversially a supermarket.
Almost immediately the board members give off the feeling that the entire hearing in their eyes is a mere formality, something that during the opening 30 minutes of consultants presenting environmental and traffic assessment reports someone catcalls from the gallery as being “a done deal” before anyone even gets to talk. Before the people of the town (and surrounding neighbourhoods, including a Buffalo lawyer and several past and present Wal-Mart employees from various regional locations) can even voice their concerns, one of the presenters – swaggering a bit like a Doug Ford wannabe – admonishes the potential speakers to not “say the same things” over and over again because it isn’t constructive.
It’s a tactical volley that makes the film – shot in 16mm and in often extremely uncomfortable close-ups – take on a large degree of intensity before individual concerns are raised about food quality, the impact on local businesses in both farming and retail sectors, and overall quality of living for the workers who will supposedly be lucking into better paying jobs. What’s most interesting about Wilkins’ work here is that he’s somehow able to find a degree of dramatic gravity out of a verbatim situation that would have been even more uncomfortable and emotional in the room. While it could have been easy to skew the dialogue to have tempers rage at every turn or for the room to turn into the municipal politics version of 12 Angry Men, it’s the very artificiality of Wilkins’ situation that brings forth an interesting question in and of itself. What really is the relationship between the people of a town and its businesses, and more importantly where does the life, responsibilities, and needs of an individual employee end and the aims of a larger corporation begin? What initially gets positioned as an argument about big business vs. the little guy turns into a more acrimonious discussion about people, the most vital part of any community to succeed.
Instead of merely just calling out Wal-Mart as an evil company trying to obfuscate its obvious shortcomings, Public Hearing becomes a vastly more interesting exercise in a more personal discussion about people who need work and whether or not certain jobs are worth taking. There are plenty of arguments both for and against the Supercentre, but by the end there’s little doubt that the people most in need of work, shelter, insurance, and a living wage have been caught in an almost unwinnable battle between privilege and greed. There aren’t any easy answers and it probably won’t change any minds on the subject of major retailers running the little guy out of business, but that’s not the point. The point is to think about more about the people who don’t speak during the hearing rather than the ones that do.