The Place That Makes Us: Review. At one point, Youngstown Ohio was a prominent force in the rustbelt, but that all changed after the closure of the steel mills that had once served as the lifeblood of the city. Because of the closures, the city struggled and many residents were forced to go elsewhere for work. Consequently, infrastructure and prosperity faltered. Specifically, the loss of the steel industry led to a rise in unemployment, an uptake in squatting and abandoned homes, an increase in crime, drug use, and economic strife in the city for those that remained. This documentary centers on the lives of several residents of Youngstown as they seek to rebuild and revitalize the city, overcoming challenges ranging from lack of awareness, bureaucracy, and limited resources.
Director Karla Murthy finds a compelling approach when it comes to this kind of documentary. While there have been many documentary films that chronicle the rise and fall of blue-collar cities like Youngstown, these films tend to be focused on the testimonials of the workers who were there in the beginning. The successes and struggles they had, and a recounting of the timeline of the town’s history, from its early days, to the industry boom, leading up to the present day struggles.
We see in this film that Murthy’s focus is on the next generation of residents. Murthy’s presence in the film feels very observational. Interviews for the most part do not feel overly edited or staged. One gets the feeling viewing the film that Murthy and the crew want to hear honestly from the interviewees when it comes to the challenges Youngstown faces and residents’ hopes for the city’s future.
Most of the people featured in The Place That Makes Us never worked in steel mills (although their relatives did) and grew up long after the city’s “boom” but are still willing to fight for it. Two residents followed, Ian Beniston and Tiffany Sokol work for an organization that focuses on renovating abandoned housing properties and selling them to new owners in the hopes of revitalizing neighborhoods and communities. Another resident, Julius T. Oliver by his own admission came from a difficult home life, but is now a business owner and city councilman actively striving to affect positive change in Youngstown, including putting together youth outreach initiatives. Finally, Bernadette “Bernie” Elliott spends the film trying to find a new home, as her current one is being neglected by her landlord and its condition is worsening.
Despite the varied backgrounds and challenges each of these people all face in Youngstown, it is evident that each person shown in the film shares the common trait that they care deeply about the city because they grew up there and they do not want to give up on the city itself and the lives they have built there. One of the most moving aspects of the film is that even though everyone featured recognizes the scope of Youngstown’s challenges and the need for large structural and fundamental change, each person still feels that it is their duty to do their best as a citizen to help change the city for the better.
Interestingly, despite repeated albeit brief mentions by interviewees regarding the effects crime and drugs has had and continues to have on Youngstown, Murthy does not delve very deep on the subject apart from one brief scene where a police officer gives an interview presumably after a drug raid. While it is understandable to not want to come across as being exploitative about sensitive issues like drug abuse and addiction, it seems like too important of a subject to only bring up occasionally and mostly in passing.
That Place That Makes Us is a compelling documentary. A film that shows the challenges a city faces when it loses a core notion of its identity, but also a film that celebrates what can be accomplished when people work together to make a better life for themselves and for their neighbors. Viewers looking for a short, honest, uplifting documentary should seek this film out.
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