‘Housing Problems’ a Landmark in Documentary Sound

Housing Problems (Arthur Elton and E.H. Anstey, 1935) is one of those classic documentaries that is important to the development of the documentary form but is more interesting to read about than it is to see.

Housing Problems is one of the first documentaries to use synchronized sound of people speaking on camera. We hear multiple voices almost to excess throughout this short, including people who live in the slums, the narrator, and the housing committee chairman. Looking a bit awkward and sounding a bit forced, the tenants talk about the poor living conditions, with the vermin, the lack of running water, and the cramped spaces. Each one has a horrifying story about living there.

Other people are more fortunate. They live in the newer spaces and marvel at the differences in quality of life, with modern appliances, windows, and space. They, too, sound awkward and forced.

But these tenants’ voices are not the most important ones in House Problems. That honor belongs to the narrator and the chairman, who represent the “official” collective voice of the steel, cement, gas, and other industries. The narrator provides background information and introductions, while the chairman explains the slums situation before the people share their stories. His explanation thus provides the framework for “reading” the tenants’ testimonies. It is not enough for them to speak for themselves about their experiences — a technique that continued in documentary for several decades afterward.

The industry voices are not the last heard, however. Interestingly though, the tenants’ voices are mixed into a montage at the end. They continue speaking about their poor living conditions. Not quite the final word on the subject, but a surprising device so early in synchronized sound documentary.

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