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Home Sickness

A fledgling filmmaker registers his anguish over the downturn of his hometown


At the beginning of Chris Harris' first film, still/here, we see the familiar skyline of downtown St. Louis. The shot induces smiles, because it's fun to recognize features of our hometown on the big screen. But the smiles don't last very long. Harris' camera rapidly turns to the focus of the film: the decaying buildings and vacant lots that line the streets of his old stomping grounds on the North Side.

still/here quickly becomes a somber meditation in black-and-white of the grim realities of ghettoization and what gets left behind. Harris' experimental hybrid of documentary and personal essay moves from one lingering shot of an abandoned home or business to the next, with no traditional narrative. At several points Harris just lets the camera roll as he drives down the street, capturing a long swath of urban blight; yes, this is grim stuff.

Shooting on and near Martin Luther King, Goodfellow, Union and Delmar boulevards; 21st Street; and St. Louis, Page and Cass avenues, Harris -- a film instructor at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park and Webster University -- found that "there are some areas where the inhabitable home is the exception rather than the rule, and that certainly was not the case when I was growing up there."

What makes the detritus of the city news, and why would Harris want to film it? "The impetus behind the film came when I had been away in Chicago for quite some time and I came back here to go to school at Webster," he explains. "My family had all moved away from the city, but from time to time I would drive back to my old neighborhood and to the house where I grew up, just out of nostalgia, and I was struck by the change between, say, 1980, when I left the city, and about '92, when I came back. During that time span, the North Side had really just sort of decayed and disappeared physically on me. I was struck by a certain profound kind of absence that was very hard for me to articulate. The film came out of an impulse of mourning, for lack of a better word. I wanted to find some way that I could mourn for the passing of these places and of these spaces. I suppose that in doing that the death of my father was also something that I really came to grips with."

The resulting look at weedy lots and the dormant Criterion Theater, at Jefferson Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, is like a travelogue in reverse, scored to grainy tracking noises, a sad bass and the loud footfalls of people who never appear onscreen.

"No one can ever truly go home, as the cliché goes," says Harris, "but there's a doubling and tripling of the loss when you realize that you're an adult now and your parents have passed away and that you can't go home but on top of that when you do drive to your birthplace, your family home, the neighborhood is gone."

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