The kind of skills documentary filmmaker Lisanne Skyler brings to her one-hour work for PBS' "P.O.V." series, "No Loans Today," are hidden behind the camera. As is Frederick Wiseman, the cinema wonder she is influenced by, Skyler is able to earn the trust of people living in extreme conditions, providing them with a comfort zone to reveal themselves. In South-Central Los Angeles neighborhoods where black-owned businesses are waning, she finds people who want to thrive but who find relief only in front of her lens.
Shot with a Wiseman-like style of recording events without didactic cutting, "No Loans Today" also samples a wide range of South-Central residents and entrepreneurs, and Skyler retains an objectivity that looks directly into her subjects' faces. They talk, and she listens.
Coke addict Audrey Cunningham talks about how her children have escaped from her drug-infested hell. Auto body shop owner Art Armstrong talks about how he couldn't get a business loan, despite being in the community for years. James Washington, owner of King's Original Hot Tamales, talks about the bureaucracy he confronts with the Small Business Administration. Watts resident Wanda Hosea talks about how her gang member son died and how she feels it was somehow "destiny."
There's a quiet, disheartening hopelessness, as if there's no reason to expect an economic turnaround in South-Central. The riots (no one here calls them "the uprising") may have sealed the hopelessness, and it now sounds deeply entrenched.
Armstrong's comment that the local area is now 60% Latinos (though Skyler, for reasons known only to her, excludes Latinos from her film) who "only hire their own" is his epitaph on black job prospects.
An unidentified businessman calls the area "a penitentiary" to keep black folks down, while Cunningham--without any business or prospects--says that it's up to individuals to change their lives. Skyler finds this kind of bending of stereotypes and contradictions everywhere, especially with the caring and sensitive Herb Andrews, who claims to own one of the few black-owned pawn shops in California. His shop becomes the film's symbol, where people come when their fortunes run dry. Andrews, though, sees hope: After filming was done, he turned his business into a community center.
* "No Loans Today" airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.