“The irony is, I raised money to make this film by flipping two houses,” Giorgio Angelini says, chuckling, about Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, his documentary about the ugly side of the American housing industry, which has its world premiere at Full Frame.
A native of Houston, Angelini bought his first home in Durham when he was playing drums and bass in the Raleigh indie rock band The Rosebuds and touring with Brooklyn band Bishop Allen. But the financial crisis of 2007 and ’08 had a detrimental impact on the entire economy, including the concert and entertainment industry, and Angelini abandoned his musical pursuits to enroll in architecture school.
“In the middle of the crisis, it was an interesting time to be in architectural school,” Angelini says. “We were coming out of this Dubai period of excess, and the discipline itself was asking, what was the role of design and architecture in this post-recession world? All these ideas were ruminating in my head.”
Angelini received a graduate-school grant to research the U.S. housing crisis. His project included photographing the Inland Empire region of Southern California.
“It was five thousand square miles of centerless sprawl, basically nothing but suburban development and private construction,” he remembers. “You had these burned-down orange groves sitting alongside these half-built McMansions, a really post-apocalyptic look. I felt that there needed to be a bigger story told.”
In Owned, the bigger story revolves around a contrarian interpretation of the usually unassailable notion that home ownership is an essential element of the American dream.
“What the film is trying to say is that it’s this double-edged sword,” Angelini says. “Owning a home is great and it provides security, and if you do it the right way it builds strong communities. It dictates where you go to school and your propensity to move up socioeconomically. But at the same time, if you let capital interests invade this utopian ideal and run amok, it can quickly become commoditized to a point that it becomes dangerous for society.”
Through the stark sights of abandoned construction projects in sweeping vistas, Angelini posits that the housing industry is an insatiable beast that subsists on the back of an ultimately self-crippling economic culture.
“The idea of home had been reduced to the most efficient capitalistic desires,” Angelini says. “Instead of bushels of oranges, they decided the best land use was a collection of air-conditioned square feet. There was lack of human intention, where you could almost feel these [markets] printing out this landscape of homes.”
Owned is also, as its subtitle says, a tale of two Americas. In the five years he spent making the film, Angelini expanded his view into other planned development communities and ran headlong into how racial and economic segregation is inextricably linked to middle-class suburbia after World War II.
“The original idea behind the film was rooted in the relationship between design and commoditization,” Angelini says. “It became very clear that I couldn’t tell that story without telling the other side.”
The film goes to hollowed-out neighborhoods in Baltimore to locate the contemporary effects of decades of discriminatory housing practices and policies.
“White flight didn’t happen by accident,” Angelini says. “It wasn’t a self-selecting, albeit racist, situation. It was very much encouraged by federal laws that were interpreted on the local level in particularly bad ways.”
Owned is Angelini’s first directorial effort, though he was executive producer of the feature film My Friend Dahmer. The expansive subject matter is packed into a dense eighty-two minutes, with a generous array of archival footage, from news features and vintage advertisements to television programs: Archie Bunker grouses about African-American neighbors on All in the Family; the inequities of “redlining” are discussed on Good Times. Beyond mere entertainment, Angelini says there’s a narrative purpose behind these pop culture snapshots.
“I wanted the feel and pace of the film to be like if the American dream was a place you could inhabit,” he says. “I wanted to create the fever-dream version of that.”