Radiant City Commentary

Released in 2006 at the Toronto International Film Festival, Radiant City is a satiric docudrama about how sprawling suburban spaces affect our emotional health. And what better place to set such a picture than Calgary, a city defined for decades by its freeways and unchecked development across the wide and innocent prairie?

The film’s title is reminiscent of the golden, late afternoon light that illuminates Calgary like no other western city. But it also evokes the specious labels placed on suburban developments, like “Evergreen,” where the fictional Moss family lives. “Evergreen” is a moonscape without a soul: no trees, no lawns, no freedom. Nothing is left unmanaged in Gary Burns’ Radiant City. The Moss family operates like clockwork from a whiteboard managed by Ann Moss (Jane MacFarlane): each family member’s activities are colour-coded; their movements are tagged to magnets representing their family cars. Evan Moss (Bob Legare) drives for two hours each day on the freeways to and from work. The children are not allowed to play on the streets (they might get into trouble); they are registered in an unending procession of classes and activities. Neighbours do not know one another; in fact, they rarely see one another. They get into their vehicles from inside their attached garages, open the doors with their automatic openers and drive to each destination without setting foot on their own street. Their dogs are small animals that can be carried in the owner’s arms.

Burns alternates our glimpse into this life with a series of stand-up commentaries by philosophers and experts in urban design. Their message is not a new one: post-war suburban housing has created middle class ghettos that encircle every North American city. But their passion is not to state the obvious. It is focused on the unintended consequences of suburban life and on what can be changed. Burns punctuates these informed opinions with animations that reveal some unnerving facts – that suburban dwelling makes you fatter than living in the inner city (less walking), that more people die on suburban streets than inner city streets (more driving) and that suburban living space is more than three times larger than post-war living space (more expensive). All in all, an unhealthy and unsustainable philosophy of urban dwelling.

What makes this exposé fresh and interesting is the fictional family at its centre. The Moss family is at times funny, resilient, conflicted, and always vulnerable. Burns follows each family member individually, in order to develop a full range of reactions to suburban life. The mother, Ann, is the person who orchestrated the move to “Evergreen”; she wanted a dream home she could afford. She feels very defensive about the choice, because she knows that the family is not happy. Evan went along with his wife’s dreams and her justifications: lots of room in the house for their three children, a large house they could afford, easy driving times to local malls and facilities. Nevertheless, he feels adrift with long commutes, a regimented schedule, and a postage stamp yard. He is not allowed to tinker with his cars in the garage because, each time he does, the car has to go to the garage for repairs: they cannot afford any down time. Evan does what he can to inject some life and colour into his drab existence by joining a community playgroup. They are putting on a musical satire about the suburbs. His wife is not happy with the subject of the play (which Evan “found” on the internet); she feels that the whole thing is somehow subversive of the dream they are supposed to be living.

Each of the adults remembers on camera the free and easy childhood they had on small streets overhung with trees; they recall long days of freedom, running and playing with other kids in the neighbourhood.  Indeed, it is the children of the Moss family who make the whole film. Nick (Daniel Jeffery) and Jennifer (Ashleigh Fidyk) understand only too well where they are and what changes “Evergreen” has wrought on their lives. They take the viewer on a number of neighbourhood tours, pointing out how the freeways dissect one community from another; these are no-go zones that separate the children from their friends. They walk from one undistinguishable street to another; no human beings are visible. Nick climbs the dreaded microwave tower in order to point out the shape of the sub-division and then jokingly tells the camera that he had better get down now because of the “waves.” The kids are funny and sardonic, finding ways to break out of the organized perfection of it all: Nick quietly erases himself from soccer practice on the white board and knows where his father keeps his rifle.

It is gratifying to know that Evan and the kids are finding ways to cope with or undermine the lives that the suburbs create for them. But the best moment of the film is when the audience discovers that all the actors were actual suburbanites from the area. Surprise! They really were talking about their own lives. Standing in front of their own houses, surrounded by their own families, they candidly discuss the issues raised by the film. Clever.

Radiant City was a co-production between the National Film Board and Burns’ business partner, producer Shirley Vercruysse, who has worked with him on waydowntown (2000), A Problem with Fear (2003) and The Future is Now (2011). Gary Burns co-wrote and co-directed Radiant City with Jim Brown. The movie opened at a number of film festivals across the Americas. It received several nominations at Toronto and won a Genie for Best Documentary; it was runner up for best Canadian film on the 2007 Toronto Film Critic’s List. At the Vancouver International Film Festival, it was awarded the Special Jury Prize. Radiant City also screened at the Calgary International Film Festival, the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival, São Paulo It’s All True Documentary International Film Festival, San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, Miami International Film Festival and the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.

Evelyn Ellerman