Nov. 04, 2009 - Issue #733: Broke
Pawnshop blues; Rosie Dransfeld's revealing Broke. shows the pawnshop way of life, and the people who have to live it
As Rosie Dransfeld tells it, the biggest problem she's had with Broke. has
been people asking her how she went about casting it. It's certainly a
compliment to both her eye for an interesting story and the elegant, simple
way she tells it that people think that pawn shop owner David Woolfson is a
character. The proprietor of A1 Trading on 111 Ave and 95 St, Woolfson is
larger than life in an area and a profession that often sees the worst parts
Broke. follows Woolfson through his day-to-day dealings with the people who frequent his store: almost to a person, they are people very near the end of the line, people for whom the bargain basement prices Woolfson buys their product at is the difference between eating (or, as is often the case, drinking) and not. Woolfson is part genial corner store operator and part cutthroat businessman: he is quick to crack wise and in remarkably good spirits for a man who is buying people's IDs so that they can get $10 to go get a drink, but is ruthless in talking people down, and is almost heartlessly pragmatic about the exorbitant interest and mark-up that he has to charge to survive.
His portrait is further fleshed out by Chris, a homeless native man with a troubled past who offers his help in the store for free. The two bicker as much as they joke around, and their relationship strains constantly over what Chris sees as systematic racism and Woolfson sees as a man who needs to get over himself.
That sort of panoramic view of the issues at its heart is certainly Broke.'s biggest achievement. A brilliant piece of cinéma vérité, it captures a revealing side of life and allows the audience to make up their own mind, indirectly asking more questions than can reasonably be listed, all the while telling a simple but compelling story. Vue Weekly had a chance to talk with Rosie Dransfeld, a statuesque woman with a Teutonically dry sense of humour, in a coffee shop not far from the Paramount Theatre, where Broke. will open this year's Global Visions Film Festival.
VUE WEEKLY: I don't want this to sound like I'm a defeatist about the city, but it amazes me that this story takes place in Edmonton, on a corner I've probably been by hundreds of times in my life. How did you come across David and what was it that tweaked you on to the fact that he would make for a good story?
ROSIE DRANSFELD: I wanted to make a movie set in a pawn shop. I felt the need to tell the story of this kind of neighbourhood, because we always make the distinction between them and us—the "poor" and us ... I wanted to show the people and show that they have stories, they have faces, they have voices, they have reasons to do thing in a certain way. The best place for that is a pawn shop, because it's the bank of the poor. We use our credit cards to get by, to make ends meet when we need to, and the only option they have is the pawn shop—or these cash places, that are even more ridiculous when it comes to interest rates.
When we started, there were I think 64 pawn shops in the city, and I went to 20 of them and just observed, watched the pawn broker and just got a feel for what happened there. Then I met David. I watched him, and I could see his charisma, how he's complicated and I could see he would easily be able to carry an hour—just how he is and how he treats his customer.
VW: You talked a bit about the us-and-them dynamic, and that's something David certainly seems to be quite aware of, and in some ways it's how he seems to justify what he does: sort of, "these people are poor, and if it wasn't for me, they'd have no other option."
RD: It's a basic moral dilemma. It's a bone-hard business. And on the one hand, yeah, he does really think that he's helping them, but on the other, he has to be selfish, because in order to make money, he has to have these interests rates. But they don't have any options, they have to accept these rates. And they know that; there is no bargaining: the pawn broker sets the price, and if you don't like it, you can try to take it somewhere else. That's part of the game he plays.
VW: And he obviously feels justified. How honest do you think his moral stance is?
RD: Well, the moral dilemma is, what's the alternative? Do we have one? How about a provincial pawn shop, with low interest rates? Maybe Mr. Klein, who has some experience with the homeless, could run it.
But, you know, what about all the bank managers giving out these high loans for real estate to people in the United States, and now they've lost everything: are they in a moral dilemma, or do they just get to cash in the money they get from the government and go on? And he's hardly the only one taking advantage of the situation. I made a film about it, you're writing about it. What about all the charities and associations who make money off of it? There is a whole industry around it, and sometimes you have to wonder how much we really want it to disappear, because there are people who would lose their job and their meaning if it's gone. What would Bono do?
VW: With that moral dilemma, one of the strengths of the film is really that it's very even-handed, or at least you're not trying to force people to make a decision on David or ...
RD: No. It's more difficult to do, this cinéma vérité—it's much easier to get b-roll and narration and so on—but what I like about it is that people can watch it and come to their own conclusions. Although, sometimes, because people are so used to having everything spelled out, they almost get upset. Like, "You tell me now, what I'm supposed to think. Is he likable or not?" And, well, no. You decide.
VW: At the same time, it's natural that we form our own opinions and make our own judgments, and surely spending as much time with him as you did, you must have some kind of opinion of who he is and what he's doing. How do you resist putting your viewpoint in there? How do you try to maintain some kind of objectivity?
RD: Well, you're never objective.
RD: The difference is, though, the moment that I'm doing something professionally, as a filmmaker, you just have all these people and their parts in the story, and I see a story unfolding there. I just have to watch how the drama unfolds, see what's happening between them. You have to step back, and as a filmmaker you should never have a preconception to the subjects.
VW: Speaking of how you treat the subjects, how was it to film the actual people who were coming in, people who are essentially in one of their most desperate moments? Did you have any problems with them?
RD: There were these kind of guys who would come in and, you know, "Put the camera away or I'll kill you." So you know you don't film that. But I had spent a lot of time in the store, and so I knew a lot of the customers, and they knew that eventually filming would happen.
My main challenge was, I wanted to be really ethical, and I didn't want to talk to people before they came into the store, because that's when they're at their most desperate, and I didn't want them thinking they could only get in if they signed. So we would just film everybody—unless they told us otherwise—and approached them after they left and asked if they were okay with us using the footage. About 95 percent said yes, and unlike middle-class people, they never asked how much we were paying.
VW: Obviously one of the most important people who comes into the store is Chris, who's in a lot of ways a perfect metaphor for what David is doing all the time, to some degree helping these people and to some degree exploiting them. Chris works for free, but he's off the streets, and David is, as he says, sort of a father figure to him. So when did he come in, and what was it about him that intrigued you?
RD: He came in early on, and it's just the classic Canadian conflict: you have the angered, hurt native man from the streets of Edmonton, and there you have the white immigrant. But what I found even more interesting is that David is Jewish, and so he's part of a people who have been persecuted for thousands of years, but on the other hand, he lived in South Africa, and he was a master there. This was just an interesting conflict.
VW: There's certainly a lot to unpack in their relationship, a lot of stuff that doesn't even necessarily relate to what you were talking about earlier, capturing this kind of neighbourhood.
RD: Well ... no. I often get asked what the film is about, and it's many things—it's about life, really, or a certain slice of it. I think more than anything, I wanted to show people that these are their neighbours: these are people who are in your community, your city and you can't just turn away from them. V
Thu, Nov 5 (8 pm); Opening Night Gala
Sat, Nov 7 (12 pm)
Directed by Rosie Dransfeld
Part of the Global Visions Film Festival
Paramount Theatre (10233 Jasper Ave)
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