@ the Movies/ Broke

Director Rosie Dransfeld discovers more than she expected to tell in her documentary, based in a local pawn shop


IT'S when he's so desperate that he'd break into a parked car to steal its GPS unit and a few CDs. It's when his addiction has taken over his inhibitions, and spare change and empties are all he's got left. It's when her wedding band is no longer irreplaceable and has lost the meaning it once held.

These are the kind of lonesome moments director Rosie Dransfeld captures in her sobering documentary Broke, which was filmed last year right here in Edmonton.

Set entirely in or just outside the cluttered A1 Trading (9434-111 Ave.), Broke examines the mostly loyal patrons of the inner city pawn shop, which happens to be situated across the street from an elementary school (see picture below).

Jewish immigrant David Woolfson is the poor man's banker, of sorts, lending cash to bottle collectors, drug addicts, alcoholics, or folks just down on their luck, for anything that he can resell in his small shop.

That shop is crammed with rusty tools, outdated appliances & electronics, acoustic & electric guitars, DVDs, wedding rings, watches, video games, china sets, and almost anything else you could think of. Some of these items are stolen, others were treasured objects lost to ridiculous interest rates.

"They come because they're desperate," admitted the brutally honest Woolfson, in his overt South African accent. "They need money, for whatever reason. Where else are they gonna get money? It's their friendly pawnbroker they come to."

Woolfson clearly has a sense of humour, because he's anything but "friendly" to the bulk of his clients, many of whom are temporarily stripped of their dignity at the hands of the callous pawnbroker, who admits that he enjoys insulting his loyals. But he ain't all that bad, even drumming up some compassion and sympathy from Broke's audience.

You see, Woolfson is an elderly man with an ailing wife (who has since passed), and he blames only himself for the distance between him and his children. It's this tiny pawn shop in the heart of a broken part of the city that keeps Woolfson from "going crazy" at home. From his point of view, he offers a service to the impoverished, the distressed, the strapped community that seemingly live unnoticed amongst the rest of us. In a way, he's right.

In a way, he's wrong, too.

It's those few bucks that some of these patrons collect in exchange for personal goods (& stolen goods) that pay for their next high, whatever that might mean. And then they're back again, and again, and again. Woolfson knows many of these men and women by name. But when it comes down to it, they're just numbers to him.

But Dransfeld unknowingly stumbled upon a sub-story when she and a camera crew settled in as flies on the wall at A1 Trading. His name is Chris Hoard, and he's an ex-con and a self-confessed "psychopath" who assists Woolfson on his own accord.

Hoard, like Woolfson points out, figures the world owes him, for years of emotional and mental abuse at the hands of misguided guardians, and for racial intolerance. The young Aboriginal man may come off as bitter, but his smile--missing tooth and all--is almost always stitched on his worn face.

"These two men...are unwittingly brought together by this corner shop of sold memories, and it reads like an awkward script for a bad TV sitcom."

These two men come from different corners of the world--quite literally--but are unwittingly brought together by this corner shop of sold memories, and it reads like an awkward script for a bad TV sitcom. But there aren't many happy endings here.

In fact, even Woolfson and Hoard's exceptional friendship runs its coarse, but that occurrence is revealed only after the camera stops rolling. When Broke kicked off the 28th annual Global Visions Film Festival in Edmonton earlier this month (Nov. 5), director Dransfeld confessed to her audience that David & Chris were no longer speaking to each other, before inviting the pair onstage for a post-film Q&A.

That's quite a departure from a short time ago when Hoard claimed that "If I ever heard of anyone ever looking wrong to Dave, I'd put 'em in the hospital. I wouldn't even think twice."

But even Woolfson and Hoard are just part of the "story" that unravels in front of Dransfeld & co. It's also the steady stream of folks who walk through the barred door of A1.

There was one woman in particular that had me choking back tears. She was a cheerful elderly Native lady who came into the shop to pawn off her ring for next to nothing. When Woolfson asked her why she wanted to trade her jewelry, she said, "I got two people staying with me and we ran out of food."

I'm holding back those same tears even as I write this, because I just can't get her out of my head. Whether or not she was telling the complete truth is something we'll never know, but nonetheless it was hard to watch (you can see a clip of the woman in the trailer below, at 0:37).

It's these desperate junctures in the lives of our destitute citizens that haunt me and, I'm sure, some of the others who sat in the chilly Paramount Theatre for the repeat screening of the 77-minute "vèritè masterpiece."

They may be customarily neglected by the rest of society, preconceived as irrelevant, second-class urbanites, but these pawn shop dependents are part of our city, too. They have their ups & downs just like the rest of us, and they have stories to tell, lessons to teach, even wisdom to pass on. Most of them may be Broke, but are far from broken.

4 outta 5 stars


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