White Houses , directed by Simona Risi, deals with a low-cost housing complex in Milan known as “The White”, which inspired outrage after poisoning its residents with asbestos. Not only was asbestos copiously used in the construction of The White, it indeed covers the buildings’ entire surface. For years, many families have lived there, literally surrounded by asbestos. Deleterious health effects obviously ensued, resulting in many deaths. What followed was a long struggle on the part of a group of tenants to try and get the municipality to take some responsible action.
This is actually the second documentary on the subject of asbestos that I have seen this year. The first one, Breathtaking , delves deeply into the science and history of this harmful substance (which continues to be manufactured to this day). Meanwhile, White Houses focuses solely on the inhabitants of this housing unit and their dealings with the government. I suppose everyone already knows that asbestos is carcinogenic – among other ways it can make you sick ““ so, there is no getting confused about this film regardless of how little exposition there is. The point is more to demonstrate how the residents take action.
Over the course of this film, the viewer gets to know several tenants from The White, as they give a piece of their minds both to government workers and to the camera. Their personalities are highly extraverted and generally compelling. Whether or not they would identify as activists, they certainly have a talent for social action. The group of people who worked towards getting the city to provide them with a safer place to live mainly consisted of housewives, whose experiences seem to have rendered them completely fearless (in a sense of how they raise their voices about the issue; not that they were fearless about their own and their families’ health). It sure wasn’t an easy fight, and it took a long time for them to see any results.
What I enjoyed most about watching this documentary was witnessing the residents join forces with high degree of solidarity. There people are rightly pissed off, but you won’t find them getting hopeless in this film. Much as the subject of asbestos can inspire discouragement, throughout this film, there is a relentless spirit of hope rooted in constructive anger.