The Things I Cannot Change
Format: 16mm Black & White
Runtime: 58 min
National Film Board of Canada
This striking direct cinema documentary, which focuses on one Montreal family’s struggle with poverty, is a remarkable film, full of poetic images, heart-wrenching moments and editing that was far ahead of its time. Filmed over several weeks, The Things I Cannot Change won several awards and is considered the precursor of the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change programme.
Intended to honestly provoke attitudinal changes about poverty and its causes and effects, the film documents the struggles of the Baileys, a large, working-class family existing well below the poverty line. That Mr. Bailey is clearly alcoholic makes the situation faced by his wife and their numerous offspring even more dire. The film records the family’s troubles with the police, the begging for stale bread at the convent, the birth of yet another child and Mr. Bailey’s explanations to the camera of his family’s predicament.
The Things I Cannot Change became notorious as a textbook case for ethical dilemmas inherent in documentary filmmaking. The film was aired nationally on CBC-TV, without the family’s permission; the family later complained that the ensuing notoriety led to serious, detrimental effects in their employment and housing – an ironic outcome for a film that was supposed to help the poor. (All later Challenge for Change films were test-screened with the participants before release.)
A generation after the release of The Things I Cannot Change, the Bailey family’s story was updated in the sequel, Courage to Change (1986).