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Radiant City

Gary Burns and Jim Brown’s Radiant City looks at the evolution and consequences of suburban sprawl, while also investigating the very form of documentary itself. Radiant City has been called a “hybrid documentary” combining elements of non-fiction, disguised fiction and self-reflexivity in its methods. The first three-quarters of the film appear to conform to standard documentary practices. Radiant City showcases experts in the fields of urban sprawl, urban planning and sociology who discuss what has happened to the way suburbs have been planned and inhabited since World War II. These talking-head segments are used in conjunction with a “day in the life” story of a typical suburban family, the Mosses, to show how the standardized suburban plan affects the lifestyles and perhaps even personalities of those living within.  

Radiant City clearly displays an unyielding opinion on the negative impacts of suburban living. The suburbs are depicted as mind-numbing and wasteful. In fact, one talking head goes so far as to claim that the suburbs make a perfect setting for zombie and alien invasion films, as the inhabitants often seem devoid of personality and independent thought already. The Mosses represent the typical suburban family. While living with her family in downtown Calgary, Ann Moss longed for a brand new house in a “community” so she and her husband moved two hours outside the city where he continues to work and bought a house in one of the many suburban developments that promised more than it could possibly deliver. Instead of green space and schools within walking distance, the Mosses find themselves constantly surrounded by construction; meanwhile every small errand requires a trip to the gas station or to one of the many retail-based “power centres” that support suburban neighbourhoods. Ann Moss insists she is happy with this way of life. Her husband, Evan Moss, sees the negative and even ironic aspects to suburban living. Though he remains complacent with his wife’s wishes, he participates in gentle mocking of this lifestyle through acting in a community theatre play, Suburbs: The Musical. The Moss children, especially thirteen-year-old Nick, seem to have the most insightful comments about suburban living. At the beginning of the film Nick takes a camera up a cell-phone tower to show us his neighbourhood, including the school (which will not be finished until he has already graduated high school) and the numerous other developments that are being built on the peripheries of his own community.  

While Radiant City may make an impactful critique of the suburban way of life, it nonetheless manages to be very funny. The dry humour of Nick and even Evan Moss as well as the shocking statistics provided by some of the talking heads and the filmmakers themselves, offer many laughs of disbelief. The tone of the film takes an interesting turn, however, about three quarters of the way into its ninety-three minute length when it is revealed that the Mosses are not, in fact, a real family but actually actors and that much of what the filmmakers have led you to believe was real was actually scripted.  

This play with the documentary mode was a point of contention for reviewers of the film. Some felt it detracted from both argumentation and credibility and claimed that the film was trying to do too many things at once. Others saw this act as more than just a challenge to the documentary form. By having actors play the typical suburban family the filmmakers escaped making a real family look foolish. Furthermore, highlighting the artificial nature of the documentary parallels how the film highlights the artificial nature of the suburbs themselves. Suburban communities promise green space in idyllic natural surroundings where neighbours know each other’s names and children can play in the streets. What they actually deliver is artificially planned “nature” and a move toward a very private existence, where life is lived in home-car-office-retail space and emphasis has shifted toward private rather than public lives. Documentaries promise truth revealed through a non-fiction format but what they actually deliver is “truths” constructed to shape an argument and Radiant City makes this artificial nature blatantly obvious with its use of actors and scripts. The actors used in Radiant City actually all lived in suburban homes similar to that of the Mosses, however, and all incorporated parts of their own lives into the roles so the line of non-fiction and fiction is once again blurred.

The argument offered by Radiant City, that suburban sprawl i a destructive force not only on our environment but on our society and on how people live and interact with one another, is a familiar one for Alberta-based co-director Gary Burns. Burns’s films including The Suburbanators (1995), Kitchen Party (1997) and waydowntown (2000) have all dealt with how suburban (or confined urban in the case of waydowntown) living affects the human mind and human ability to interact with others. Burns’s films offer ironic humour and a generally negative picture of these types of planned communities. Co-director Jim Brown made his debut as a filmmaker with Radiant City. Brown is a notable Canadian journalist and broadcaster in both radio and television, known for his work with the CBC and as host of the Calgary-based current-affairs radio programme, The Eye Opener. Both Burns and Brown’s continuing interest in and passion for the issue of suburban development shine through the tone and structure of Radiant City.

Even if Radiant City were a straightforward documentary it could have been an effective film. Experts including architects Marc Boutin and Ken Greenberg and authors Joseph Heath (The Rebel Sell) and Mark Kingwell (Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living From Plato to Prozac) raise interesting facts about suburban living and even propose some solutions to the major problems facing the evolution of suburban sprawl. Cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin (waydowntown) captures haunting portraits of the suburban way of life, perhaps most memorably the commuting sequence in which endless shots of traffic-jammed highways reflect both the damage suburban sprawl has inflicted onto the environment and the miserable way of commuting it seems to necessitate. The soundtrack features songs by the Pixies’ Joey Santiago and contributes to the lively tone of the film.

Radiant City premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival to a very warm reception. The film went on to show at film festivals across North and South America, including the Vancouver and Calgary International Film Festivals, the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival and the Sao Paulo It’s All True Documentary International Film Festival. Radiant City also won the 2008 Genie Award for best documentary, was selected as one of Canada’s Top Ten of 2006 in TIFF’s annual juried competition, and was the runner up for best Canadian film on the 2007 Toronto Film Critic’s List. Reviews of Radiant City were very positive both in Canada and the United States.   Radiant City offers a disturbing portrait of the epidemic of suburban development facing our world today. While it does not seek to resolve the problem of sprawl, it acts as an eye opener to the magnitude of suburbanization and the possibilities of how suburban planning can affect all aspects of society. An effective and entertaining documentary, Radiant City offers an important reflection on our contemporary moment

By: Andrea Whyte