A narrative voiceover -- or more informative on-screen titles -- and judicious editing would sharpen the focus of "Flag Wars," an intriguing sociopolitical docu that grows increasingly diffuse in the final half hour. Winner of jury documentary prize at SXSW Film Festival, pic could find appreciative auds through niche cable and public TV airings.

A narrative voiceover — or, at the very least, more informative on-screen titles — and judicious editing would sharpen the focus of “Flag Wars,” an intriguing sociopolitical docu that grows increasingly (and frustratingly) diffuse in the final half hour. Winner of jury documentary prize at SXSW Film Festival, pic could find appreciative auds through niche cable and public TV airings.

Co-directors Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras offer a scrupulously evenhanded overview of the upheaval caused by urban gentrification in Columbus, Ohio. Pic’s specific focus is Olde Towne East, a traditionally black working-class neighborhood where residents are being displaced by gay professionals who want to renovate the houses.

Bryant and Poitras acknowledge homophobia in Columbus by including rants of white local right-wing Bible-thumper Chuck Spingola. Instead of structuring docu simply as clash between gays and blacks, however, helmers take more provocative approach by viewing events in terms of class warfare.

Gay homeowners try to create their own community — and gay real estate agent Nina Masseria tries to increase her business — by exploiting building codes and zoning regulations, hoping to make long-time black residents either improve or sell their homes. Inevitably, black residents rebel against such tactics.

Chief Shango Baba Olugbala, a Yoruba priest whose living room doubles as an African art gallery, defies legal efforts to make him remove a code-violating sign from the front of his home. More tragically, Linda Mitchell — apparently mentally challenged and afflicted with cirrhosis — can barely defend herself against complaints about her ramshackle home and junker cars.

“Flag Wars” — title refers to opposing banners of gay pride and black pride groups — clearly sympathizes with Olugbala, Mitchell and other long-time Olde Towne East residents. Still, pic stops far short of identifying other parties as villains. Gay homeowners such as Jim Yoder come across as self-interested, but not heartlessly selfish. Fair-minded jurist identified only as Judge Pfieffer struggles to do the right thing.

Shot over a four-year period, “Flag Wars” ends on downbeat note as Bryant and Poitras refrain from positing easy answers to questions pic raises. Sharp editing by Bryant and Erez Laufer enhances impact of individual scenes without straining for facile ironies.

Flag Wars

Production

A Zula Pearl Film production. Produced by Linda Goode Bryant. Directed by Linda Goode Bryant, Laura Poitras.

Crew

Camera (color, digital video), Poitras, Bryant; editor, Bryant, Erez Laufer; music, Graham Hayes. Reviewed on videocassette, Houston, March 22, 2003. (In SXSW Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 95 MIN.
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