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Dirty Feathers

A gorgeous portrait of life on the margins, this observational doc strikes us with both its directness and poetry — live from Berlin Film Festival


A poetic snapshot of life on the periphery, Dirty Feathers excels in capturing the multifarious nature of life on the streets. Although there are many similarities between the various homeless people the film follows, no two stories are the same, painting a diverse portrait of people taking each day as it comes.

Using his experience working in the camera department for Roberto Minervini, the US-based Italian filmmaker whose movies, blending documentary and narrative, capture rural lives often ignored in the USA, first-time feature director Carlos Alfonso Corral builds upon these portraits with a striking observational documentary of his own. Blending poetic voiceover with light music and stark black-and-white images, Dirty Feathers quietly observes the lives of those in and around a homeless shelter in El Paso — on the border with Mexico — optimistically known as the “Opportunity Center.”

Opportunity and optimism permeate this story, with most of the subjects talking with clear-eyed enthusiasm about how God will eventually provide for them. At its heart is an African-American couple: Brandon and his pregnant wife Reagan. They support each other as much as possible while living with debilitating drug addiction. But Brandon has his own dreams of running a soul food restaurant, methodically laying out his plans to make it a success. Yet Brandon and the many others who make up this film — a Latino man grieving his son, a war veteran, a Trump-hating immigrant — are not followed in a traditional sense, with Corral more interested in poetics than conclusions.

Many of them are barred from the OC for one reason or another, forced to find alternative living arrangements that stress the difficulty of their situation. It’s clear the director has spent a fair amount of time with these people before rolling the camera, allowing for immersive yet unobtrusive frames, capturing light in an almost ethereal fashion. It can be hard to know exactly how much time has passed, yet this seems to be the point, capturing these people as they lie suspended between a difficult past and a tentative future, aptly symbolised by Reagan’s upcoming baby.

It’s scary watching this documentary knowing the twin-horrors that lie ahead: the Covid-19 pandemic and Texas’s ongoing energy crisis. Perhaps some of these characters have already fatally succumbed to state failure. Texas is well-known for its rugged sense of individualism, even within the hyper-capitalist USA, and this theme of self-improvement is evident within almost all of its resilient subjects; nonetheless, without forcing a central thesis upon us, Dirty Feathers shows us the importance of a social state in order to deal with addiction, mental health issues, healthcare (one man talks of a $10,000 hospital bill), post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness; how people ultimately need some help in order to realise their dreams. The apparent collapse of the social state in these regions (which has no income tax!) has led to an underclass of forgotten people; Dirty Feathers, with its stirring, un-judgemental tone, returns some measure of dignity and beauty to their lives.

Dirty Feathers is playing in the Panorama section of Berlinale, running from 1st to 5th March.

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