Shelter: A Squatumentary: DVD

Jan 15, 2009

Among the many ludicrous ideas that society has tried to shove down my throat and make me buy into is the concept of “ownership.” Yes, you read that right. Ownership. The soft gooey chocolaty center to “being an American” that makes all that we do make sense. It’s the thing that is in the sticky middle of all advertising and it’s the sick marshmallow clown-tumor that is at the very heart of the “American Dream.”

It’s also the thing that, next to our stunning good looks, supposedly makes us superior to all those languishing third world countries where the dearth of Ipods and cell phones and lavish Martha Stewart-like houses is pathetically counterbalanced by an overabundance of rickety shacks, teeming flies and malnutrition. Those people are just not clued into the potential spiritual glories of gluttonous ownership, according to a sweetly ass-stupid ex-coworker of mine. We’re smart enough to own as much as we possibly can and they’re not, simple as that. Just ask that Rush Limbaugh bag of gas.

Whether you fancy yourself on the right side of the political spectrum or the left, in this “land of the free, home of the brave,” the sense of ownership is one of our most primary motivators for pulling ourselves out of bed in the morning and we oftentimes use it as a gauge to see how our fellow humans measure up. It’s such an integral component of our consensus reality that we’re barely aware of just how pervasive it is. That can be explained, of course, by the fact that we’ve all been manipulated and dumbed-down to the point where it now seems unnatural to question that which fuels our most basic motivations. But all along the desire to “own” has been the rotten hairy butt carrot that’s been dangled in front of our noses and it’s kept us slogging along, forever grasping, forever wanting.

One of the more notable consequences of that is that our land is carved up into units of ownership called “properties,” and the phantasm of ownership is further propped up by a leviathan of a legal system that keeps an ever watchful eye out for those who might not play by the game rules. But it all has as much “solid” reality as, for example, Malcolm McLaren’s fanciful, revisionist take on the history of the Sex Pistols. Put butt-simple: it’s a classic case of reification. It’s the attempted concretizing of pure abstractions. In reality, ownership is nothing more than a figment of a giant imagination.

Now, saying this might possibly be the most dangerous thing an American can say these days, seeing how our entire economic system is kept uncomfortably sustained by the dutiful ingestion of the bland and unintelligent fruits of ovine consumerism. And consumerism is, of course, tied into the whole ownership concept like stink on shit. Shooting my mouth off like this could very well get me assassinated even before Barack Obama. But here’s the naked truth: the concept of ownership is an infantile, brutish, and territorial idea that surely grew from a sprout that twisted up from between the midget hemispheres of the legume-sized brain that we, as hominids, possessed in the darkest of ages of our early evolution. It all boils down to the idea of “mine”—that grabbing, covetous concept that showed up for most of us right around the same time that we were wearing diapers and hanging out in playpens and routinely throwing temper tantrums when we weren’t able to seize the object of our desire and make it our own.

To this day, the idea of ownership still sticks in my craw and simply refuses to be digested. I guess it’s a lot like that Olean shit that they tried putting in snack chips in the 90s—as much as you ate it, it just kept sliding through your tubes and out your back hole without leaving behind so much as a nutritional skid mark. The concept of ownership has similarly refused to stick to me. So it was with some interest that I popped Shelter into the DVD player. I had a feeling of prescience, a distinct sense that I was about to gaze into a crystal ball of sorts and see what my future might hold for me. I have, after all, always admired people who thumbed their noses at society’s restrictive conventions and found their own shelter outside the delineations of the law. Whether it’s Diogenes living in a large deserted tub or Taoist hermits living in mountain caves or Richard Proenneke chucking everything and building himself a cabin deep in the Alaskan wilderness, I have always been impressed by their free-thinking gumption.

Shelter is a 45 minute documentary that shines an honest light under the rocks and into the darkest corners of modern day urban decay. Three California squats—Hellarity, Banana House, and Power Machine—are featured and at each we get to see how the outlaw inhabitants go about their day-to-day, mundane existence. That ranges from dealing with rigidly doctrinaire law enforcement thugs, to dealing with plants growing up through the kitchen floor, to fortifying their squats against intruders by spreading shards of broken glass along the windowsills. And what comes shining through is that these are not shabby miscreants, societal dregs, or diseased rodent people, but intelligent, idealistic folks who are brave enough to buck the system and live by their own rules. And I admire the stinking hell out of that. 

As someone who has an intrinsic inability to take the concept of ownership too seriously—and as our economy currently shudders and strains in what might be the earliest stages of birthing the Second Great Depression—I’m realizing that the noble art and science of squatting is one that I should probably familiarize myself with. And if you’re like me, someone who has never squatted but is intrigued by the outlaw glamour of it, Shelter is as good a place to start your investigation as any. Filmmaker Hannah Dobbs has said that she hoped that Shelter would get people to think about squatting and I would say that in that respect this film is an unalloyed success. –Aphid Peewit ([email protected])