Pushback, the new documentary by local filmmaker Matthew Hayes, doesn’t have a good story. It doesn’t have a simple story arc or a satisfying conclusion, and its protagonists aren’t always very likeable—but they are real.
Instead, the film is a slice of life, documenting six months in the lives of four current and former residents of the Warming Room, and one staff member—specifically, the six months of the year when the Warming Room isn’t open.
It’s a surprising move for a film that has so often been described as being “about the Warming Room,” but it means that the film is in a way defined by the Warming Room’s absence, looking at what happens when this most basic safety net—meager as it may be—goes away.
Hayes has chosen to shoot Pushback vérité style, which is to say, with as little interference from the director as possible. There’s no flashy editing or fancy camerawork, no narrator or talking-head interviews to tell us what it all means.
Occasionally, Hayes allows his camera to pan around and focus in on little details of these people’s lives—the random detritus of a rundown crack house, a new toyroom still being unpacked after a move—but for the most part, his camera simply follows behind and beside its subjects as they go through their lives.
It’s a movie that slowly steps onward, day by day, through good and bad. Successes and setbacks appear seemingly at random, outside of the control of anyone in the film. One man finds happiness (and a home) with a new partner and her son, but then it all falls apart after she suddenly loses custody. Two men share a quiet evening around a fire, but then the police arrive and douse the fire because it’s been lit in a public park. At one point, one of the subjects shows up with a bruised lip, and explains that someone else in her rooming house was angry about something, and she just happened to be the closest thing around.
Even the Warming Room itself is like that: open for the six months of winter, a temporary respite, and then it simply shuts down, and the people who were depending on it just have to find something else.
There’s nothing simple about the film’s subjects, either. It’s no small feat that the film shows Chad as a deadbeat dad with a crude swastika tattoo that he got in prison (“I’ve been meaning to get that removed,” he says bashfully), and yet still we are with him every moment along the way as he tries to put his life back together. Kelly, now living in a crack house, had a good home and a good family as recently as ten years ago before alcohol tore it all apart. Brian is soft-spoken and intelligent as he goes through methadone treatment. And Mike is a true unique, spending his homeless summers reading scripture and paddling the Otonabee in a canoe.
Then there’s Andrew, a Warming Room staff member and the film’s sole non-low-income subject. It’s an interesting decision to pair his story with the others. At first he seems like a study in privilege: one scene in particular, where he goes in for an overnight sleep study at a clinic and complains about the uncomfortable bed, while we know some of the film’s other subjects don’t have a bed at all, is darkly ironic. But he too has his struggles, and we can only admire that this person of privilege has still devoted so much of his life to helping others.
These nuanced and complex portrayals, full of surprising and unlikely specifics, would reveal something about homelessness to any audience, but it’s worth noting that they land even harder for a Peterborough crowd. These problems cannot feel far away when so much of the film feels so immediately, violently local.
The two men standing around a fire happens in the shadow of Quaker Oats. The custody hearing is at the County Courthouse near Victoria Park. There are scenes at the Silver Bean Cafe, at PACE (formerly PCVS), wandering the downtown near Knock On Wood. I had the sense watching the film that most of the events it documents took place within about four blocks of my house. You, dear reader, have most likely stepped over some of Pushback’s subjects on the street.
And this, ultimately, is the crux of it. Too often, homelessness is an issue we’re able to compartmentalize. We distance ourselves from homeless and low-income people by attaching simple narratives that help us explain away their problems.
The people we see panhandling are probably villains who were too lazy or too weak to work, who messed up their lives and are getting what they deserve, or maybe they’re heroes struggling valiantly against adversity until one day they will inevitably triumph.
A film like Pushback breaks those narratives, by showing homeless and low-income people in all their complications, by delighting in their successes and sharing in their simple pleasures, before showing it all torn away by random setbacks. Pushback doesn’t have a good story because homelessness doesn’t have a good story. “In the end,” says Chad at one point, “the city doesn’t want to help the people. Maybe it’s because they’ve never lived that life. They’ve never experienced it.” Pushback lets us experience it—at least a little bit of it.
Read more about Matthew Hayes and the Peterborough film scene: “Establishing Shots: Film in Peterborough“
Read more about the Warming Room: “Why Does Homelessness Exist?“