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Greyland is the story of what was the fastest shrinking city in the United States, Youngstown, Ohio. Once the booming centre of American steel, when the bottom fell out of the industry in the 1950s, 60% of the population moved out. Today, 37% of those left, live beneath the poverty line. Like Rocco and Amber. A recovering heroin addict turned urban archeologist, Rocco hunts through hundreds of abandoned houses. Vintage clothing, records, art works, everything he finds goes to Greyland, his art gallery come thrift store, to be converted into cash. Meanwhile Amber is a single mother and the president of the Neighbourhood Association of Homeowners, leading the fight against city hall for their inaction in cleaning up her neighborhood. “We want to believe,” Amber says, “that there’s good, hopeful things coming.”
Through poetically apocalyptic imagery of a town taking its last breath, Greyland tells the story of two individuals’ resilience when everything has fallen apart around them. ‘You can try, but you’re not going to change it. All that trying just becomes part of the way it goes’, Rocco sings echoing the struggles of a generation in limbo. Youngstown has been held up as a symbol of post-industrial decline not only in the United States, but in the modern world. And if it can happen in the land of opportunity, it can happen anywhere. Greyland follows Rocco and Amber’s search for meaning and hope in the midst of economic decline and a political landscape out of synch with the needs of its community. Should Rocco and Amber continue to fight for their city or flee like thousands before them? ¨Leave if you want to leave,” says Rocco, “but don’t turn it into something it’s not.” Question is, without change, can the community of Youngstown continue to satisfy anyone? What can grow back in a land burnt to the ground?
After years working, filming and living on the African continent, I returned to North America in 2012. Having followed Obama’s election in 2008 from afar, I was fascinated by the impact it had seemed to have across the world. I decided to spend time canvassing for the presidential campaign in low-income neighborhoods of Ohio and Pennsylvania so that I could see the effervescence up close for myself.
But instead, I was shocked by the social injustices and societal breakdown I witnessed. Like most, I knew of the devastation of the economic crisis affecting the US, but I wasn’t prepared for what I heard and saw: a destroyed social fabric and loss of pride. What I was witnessed, was the breakdown of the modern world’s social contract, following the rise and fall of industrial power. There is no doubt that the United States provides many powerful and overbearing symbolisms around the world—yet, it seemed we never fully delve into the other side of the coin. As an outsider, and especially as a Quebec native who lives just on the other side of the border, I felt I could offer an external perspective that resonates with the future the world is confronting, beyond America’s borders. I felt it was time to take a symbol as strong as the one offered by the United States and look at it through a magnifying glass in order to tell a much larger story facing humankind.
For this reason, Youngstown was the perfect laboratory for such an observation. Small enough so that all the social and political issues present elsewhere would be concentrated at a level not found in bigger cities. I approached a colleague, Professor Justin Gest, who had spent several months in Youngstown, interviewing residents for his book “The New Minority.”
With the social breakdown that has affected the city, Youngstowners are wary and suspicious of outsiders and locals alike. The initial research for the film benefited from a relationship Professor Gest built with people in Youngstown’s government and civic organizations, as well as his acquaintance with the city’s history, politics and economic trends. Thanks to the respect that Prof Gest research had gained, we immediately had access to several people in Youngstown, such as Rocco and Amber.
Over the course of nearly six years, the film’s characters have perceived our camera as a confessional. During shoots, only Katerine Giguere (Director of Photography), and I are present, creating a safe and intimate space with our characters. We are nearly the same age as Rocco and Amber and our ideas on filmmaking closely align with many of their own aspirations to create change. As we have returned to Youngstown several times over the years, they have become to trust our vision for the film. I regularly keep in touch with Rocco and Amber via text messages and occasional phone calls. As many anthropologists or ethnographers do, I’ve allowed Youngstown to inhabit me over the years. The complex relationships and thoughtful intimacy that one can create with people one may not initially have much in common with is what compels me to make documentaries. Openness and trust built over time is what has allowed me to provide a profoundly human, truthful and intimate perspective on an important story of our times.
Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque is a humanitarian aid worker and filmmaker. Originally from Montreal, Canada, Alexandra has always believed in the power of media for social change. She cofounded the non-profit organization Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in 2002 for which she received Canada’s Governor General Medal for Meritorious Service.
After working for nearly 3 years in Sudan, with BBC Media Action and the United Nations peacekeeping mission, Alexandra produced and directed the feature documentary film, The Longest Kiss, about the split between Sudan and South Sudan. The film received the Corus-Hot Docs Fund, was aired on Super Channel in Canada and was awarded a special mention for the Magnus Isacsson Prize at the Montreal International Documentary Film Festival (RIDM).
Alexandra currently works for the Red Cross Movement in Switzerland, where she combines her passion for visual storytelling and important social issues of our times. In recent years, she has worked in humanitarian crises in Iraq, Jordan, Haiti and the Philippines.