Review by Sean Boelman
With his documentary Dirty Feathers, filmmaker Carlos Alfonso Corral hopes to approach a pressing social issue in America in a poetic way. For the most part, he succeeds, delivering an intriguing and cinematic viewing experience despite a bit of difficulty in finding the connection between these intimate stories and the bigger picture.
The movie takes a look at life around a homeless shelter in El Paso, TX by following some of the residents as they go about their daily lives. There have been a lot of films dealing with the impoverished and homeless in America, but Corral’s documentary stands out as it feels less angry and more mournful.
Corral doesn’t seem interested in judging these people who are living on the streets of Texas, instead using their images and words as a representation of the neglect of society. However, the weakness of Corral’s movie is that it seems to exist simply to call out the sins of the world, not to propose a solution to them. As a result, there is a certain hopelessness to the film.
There is no denying that homelessness is a problem that needs to be fixed in America, and the past year has shown us that this is just as pressing of a matter as ever. Corral’s reminder that these people are in fact people and not just statistics is an important one to remember, especially since many like to treat homelessness as a taboo topic.
At an hour and fifteen minutes in length, Corral moves the pace along by weaving between these different people and their stories. Some are more straightforward, as they grieve the things and people they have lost, and others are more abstract, offering philosophical and/or theological musings that don’t always make total sense.
Choosing to explore a group of residents from the homeless shelter was a wise move from Corral, because it really emphasizes the feeling of community. There’s a stigma associated with homelessness and Corral’s movie challenges that by showing how the community that the unhoused live shares a lot in common with the communities the housed form.
That said, the true star of the film is the harsh Texan landscape. Although homelessness is certainly a saddening topic in its own right, seeing homelessness in a brutal winter is particularly heartbreaking. Photographed in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, Corral’s movie uses juxtaposition to a wonderful emotional effect.
Dirty Feathers may have a few issues that come with a first-time filmmaker having big ambition that doesn’t always pay off, but it’s an assured and confident debut nevertheless. Its great visuals and humanistic approach will take it a long way.
Dirty Feathers is now screening as a part of the Berlinale Industry Event, running virtually from March 1-5, 2021.