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Frontline spent months following three young girls who are growing up amidst their families’ struggles against financial ruin. (Jezza Nuemann)
Frontline spent months following three young girls who are growing up amidst their families’ struggles against financial ruin. (Jezza Nuemann)

Poverty is all around, so how does it go unseen by us? Add to ...

There’s a man who lives in my neighbourhood, name of Vac. A couple of years ago, he stopped me on the street, introduced himself, said he knew my work, and said we should meet and talk. He said he had worked on the earliest soccer program on Canadian TV, had many stories to tell and would like me to hear them. Sure, I said, some time, we would.

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I ran into him several times, and I assumed he lived in a house or condo in the ’hood, as many others in the media and arts do. Never did have that sit-down chat with him. Always too busy, me, always too many programs to screen, too many things to write, trips to prepare for, the busyness inflicted by work and self. Couldn’t meet up with every reader who wanted to talk TV and soccer.

Vac Verikaitis’s short film How Can a Warm Man Understand a Cold Man? is airing at regular intervals throughout November on TVOntario as part of TVO’s involvement in the international public television Why Poverty? project. It’s on the TVO website for anyone to see, any time. It will also be screened in Toronto on Wednesday at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema, along with Why Poverty’s big-ticket doc, the provocative Give Us The Money, about the politics of celebrity and poverty relief.

I was stunned when I saw Vac’s short, powerful film. Stunned and mortified. He does indeed live in my ’hood – at Evangel Hall Mission, a shelter for “homeless or socially isolated men and women.” I ran into him often because he walked the streets with nowhere else to go. He had been a successful sports reporter and producer and was very good at it. Then his life spiralled downward, to Evangel Hall.

As he says in the film. “First, you’re in shock. Then you panic and start to beg and plead. And old friends that you thought liked you stop returning your calls. Then you’re forced to learn survival. Then you become part of the system. Then you try to claw your way out.”

Vac is trying to make his way out. In the film, made a few months ago on the tiny budget allowed by the Why Poverty? project, he says, “I feel excluded, degraded, humiliated.”

He also says that “all it takes is a certain set of circumstance.” That applies by the bucketful to Tuesday night’s Frontline: Poor Kids (PBS, 9 p.m.), in which a 14-year-old says, “I was surprised by how things can change so fast. You can go from doing okay, not having to go hungry, to this: going hungry and having to pay all your bills and not being able to buy food, on the verge of being homeless again.”

Poor Kids takes viewers to the Quad Cities straddling the boundary of Iowa and Illinois – Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Illinois – and allows children there to talk about their circumstances from their own perspective. It is a portrait of hunger and hand-to-mouth living in the heart of the heart of America. It’s about kids struggling to understand why parents don’t have work, why they’ve lost a home and why they spend a lot of their time being hungry.

We meet 10-year-old Kaylie, who talks a lot about the hunger in her stomach. “I’m just starving,” she says. “We don’t get that three meals a day, like breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

We see Kaylie and a friend wander the streets of her battered town, past derelict business and shut-down factories, looking for cans she can collect and cash in for five cents, so that she can help her mother. Her brother Tyler, 12, stares dolefully at the TV in his house, knowing it will soon be gone because his mom can’t afford it, and says, “Sometimes, when there’s a cooking show on, I get a little more hungry, and I want to vanish into the screen and just start eating the food.”

These are the children of parents whose jobs have vanished. These are parents who have to explain to their kids that they have to move and sell possessions, and even in their new, smaller home, there’s no hot water because they can’t afford to pay for it.

Poor Kids is not part of the Why Poverty? project. Made as a Frontline/BBC co-production, it is being aired to coincide with U.S. Thanksgiving, a reminder to the comfortable that the uncomfortable truth about the foundering American economy is that the children of the working poor are the children of the defeated, and are hungry.

Two documentaries, one short, one full-length and both illuminating in the way TV’s images and words can be, a world that is close but willfully unseen by so many of us. I felt chastened on seeing How Can a Warm Man Understand a Cold Man? I had neglected to engage, to grasp what was before me. And that failure to engage is, indeed, the point of Vac’s short film.

Vac has felt excluded, humiliated by his experience. But he is not diminished. His film is powerful, beautiful, made with aplomb. The children seen in Poor Kids are, being mere children, monstrously diminished by their circumstance. They, too, are excluded, humiliated and hungry, and don’t understand why.

 

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