“Tent City, U.S.A.”: Overly Optimistic, Overtly Staged, But Hopeful Nonetheless

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Tent City ,U.S.A. (2012), a film produced by the Oprah Winfrey Network, was released in early 2012, and takes a look at the toll the global economic crisis has had on the United States’ most vulnerable citizens. The persistence of high unemployment rates in the United States has led to increasing numbers of homeless men and women searching for shelter. The film takes a positive and spiritually influenced view of homelessness, and the uplifting possibilities of community.

Tent City ,U.S.A. turns a very safe and optimistic eye on the plight of homeless men and women living on the outskirts of Nashville. In 2010, at the time of filming, Nashville boasted a homeless rate of 30% above the national average, and as such, was dealing with a housing crisis. The search for shelter led to the birth of Tent City. Nashville’s Tent City was located beside a riverbed and was made up of dozens of makeshift shelters. The film documents daily life, and the patchwork community its residents helped create. Tent City had existed for years, but its community truly began to take shape when a Christian group took an interest in the welfare of its inhabitants. They started building trust within the camp and kicked off a number of initiatives. Many of Tent City’s residents embraced these ideas, helping to build communal showers, and improving their makeshift homes. Strict rules were put in place to prevent violent outbursts, and to allow everyone living there to feel somewhat secure. As the film progresses, we experience several story lines, including the destruction and relocation of the camp, a movement to achieve political recognition, as well as individual tales of success and failure.

As hopeful and touching as the film is, its overtly staged feeling does it no favours. Its low production value, mixed with the borderline corny feel gives the impression of a TLC documentary. Many interactions are forced, and the film is very careful to only show positive aspects of the camp. Things are rarely so black and white. It’s hard to believe that any roughly organized community, let alone one that is partially made up of people with substance abuse issues and ex-cons, would be a perfect utopia. Still, it is heartening to see a documentary that is so determined to break through stereotypes of the homeless, and give a voice to those who are often overlooked.

Despite the stilted narrative, this film succeeds in presenting the many different faces of the homeless. Everyone has their stories of how they ended up on the street. The pastor who leads the Christian group that has helped Tent City progress, notes that in each story, there is one common thread. He explains that for whatever reason, many people who end up on the streets have isolated themselves, or been pushed away from friends and family. When tragedy strikes, be it an illness, unemployment or otherwise, they have no safety net. Its faults aside, Tent City ,U.S.A. provides an engrossing and sweeping look at an often ignored community, and emphasizes the power of the human spirit in the face of adversity.