Over its long history, the National Film Board of Canada has produced or co-produced several strong documentary films about homelessness in Canada. Whether the economy is up or down, the issue has provided compelling stories and inspired filmmakers to help us look beyond stereotypes. Family Motel, an NFB co-production with Instinct Films, is the latest film to look at the plight of the homeless and it proves surprisingly powerful thanks to an excellent cast.
I say "cast" because Family Motel is one of a handful of recent co-productions marking the government studio's return to fiction (non-animated, that is). The NFB's last attempt to produce "alternative drama" around 10 years ago yielded mixed results and that is also the case this time around - after all, government programs that aim to support films geared toward box-office success don't always produce a string of winners.
While the NFB/Canadian Film Centre experimental interactive drama Late Fragment was disappointing (judge for yourself when the DVD comes out this July), Family Motel hits its more modest mark.
Ottawa community services worker Nargis and her teenage daughters Asha Jibril and Sagal Jibril play, respectively, Ayan and her daughters Nasrah, 16, and Leila, 13, Somali refugees separated from their father and brothers. The characters find themselves caught in circumstances that result in their living in an Ottawa motel where local social services puts families when homeless shelters are overflowing. "Does this mean we're poor?" asks Leila, who holds out hope the motel has a Jacuzzi.
Director Helene Klodawsky, who collaborated with independent consultant Hodan Mohamed, has the cast of non-actors improvise dialogue and actions in roughly plotted scenes that take us though the research-based yet engaging, well-paced story.
Nasrah, a good student who also writes songs, is looking forward to parties with friends, but on the last day of school she and her family are forced to move into a fleabag motel on the other side of town because her mother is sending money back home and can't make the rent. This is not quite the summer vacation she had in mind. Day after day, Nasrah is stuck minding her younger sister and doing chores while Ayan is out working two office-cleaning jobs. A social worker organizes an evening for teens living in the motel to talk about their feelings and share a meal, but that's only a temporary diversion.
An attractive young man Nasrah has been checking out at the motel slithers up to her, offering her use of his extra cellphone and a lift in his car any time she needs a ride. Thanks to resentful Leila, Ayan discovers the phone and hits her breaking point, lashing out at Nasrah and attracting the attention of child services.
Aside from a few cultural touchstones - archival footage of war-torn Somalia suggesting the women's dreams, Ayan setting off the fire alarm one night when she's burning incense etc. - Family Motel is ultimately not an immigrant tale. Unlike the characters in Ken Loach's recent It's a Free World or Nick Broomfield's Ghosts, both of which use non-actors to tell stories about illegal immigrants in Britain, Ayan and her daughters are well integrated into Canadian society.
Instead, Family Motel uses fresh faces to show the domino effect of becoming homeless, revealing just how close many of us are to the edge.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Family Motel runs at The Royal Cinema in Toronto June 22-24 (416-534-5252).