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With: Herb Andrews, Wanda Hosea, Aaron McCloud
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Lisanne Skyler
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 55
Date: 08/12/2013

No Loans Today (1995)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pawns in the Game

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back in 2000, I saw a wonderful movie called Getting to Know You, based on three Joyce Carol Oates stories, and then interviewed its maker, Lisanne Skyler, while sitting in the seats at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco. In my research, I discovered the title of an earlier movie she did, a 55-minute documentary called No Loans Today. I never in a million years thought I'd get a chance to see it, until I received an email from Ms. Skyler, thirteen years after our interview.

This month No Loans Today is one of fifteen films chosen by the Sundance Institute to be part of their Artist Services program. It will be available digitally beginning August 13, for two years. (The program also includes Mark Becker's equally terrific documentary Romántico, as well as Michael Cuesta's L.I.E., which I did not much care for, but which some of my colleagues and readers adore.) See for details.

No Loans Today is a tender, touching slice of life filmed in 1993 in South Central Los Angeles. (I kept thinking of young, pretty, white, tall Skyler traipsing around in these neighborhoods with her camera.) The main focus is on a pawnshop and check-cashing center, the ABC Loan Co., but Skyler also looks at a few other businesses, notably an auto repair shop and a diner.

These businesses are all black-run, but even back then, when the economy was recovering after the first Bush presidency, they were all struggling. The main problem is that this neighborhood was ground zero for the 1992 riots following the outcome of the Rodney King police brutality trial. (Despite being caught on video, the cops were acquitted.) One resident quickly painted "black-owned" outside the pawn shop, but it didn't matter, as owner Herb Andrews explains.

The riots came and went, but in the media South Central became a neighborhood to be feared and pitied, a destroyed wasteland and a breeding ground for desperation. Skyler's movie attempts to bring some humanity back to it, and succeeds.

I found myself fascinated in learning how the pawnshop operates behind the scenes. For example, they have a massive, hand-made card system for all their customers, just in case anyone loses his or her ID. (The cards contain only their birthdates and signatures, both things that won't change, Andrews explains.) The movie opens with the three young men admiring some of the firearms behind the shop's thick glass window, but they leave without buying anything. Money is tight everywhere.

Skyler spends some time interviewing some of these young men, all of whom have trouble finding jobs either because of prison records, or just because of bad luck. (One job moved out of the neighborhood and a man was forced to quit because he couldn't afford to commute.) Many of them fall into the only option open to them, drug dealing, even if they hope to avoid it.

Perhaps most movingly, we meet Wanda Hosea, the mother of a deceased gang member. In one striking moment, she discovers her son's graffiti tag on a wall, and sadly points out all the other tags next to it, her late son's friends. Hosea holds in her grief courageously, but she breaks your heart.

Skyler presents all of this in an unhurried rhythm, gaining considerable depth and a potent life force with her 55 minutes. It's like a series of candid, but carefully chosen snapshots that capture the mood of a moment or an area. Indeed, I found No Loans Today much more affecting than many of today's polished, practiced, talking head documentaries.

You may think that No Loans Today is dated and that there's no point in watching something this old, but you'd be wrong. This movie is about people, and their troubles, worries, joys, and loves, are just as palpable across space as they are across time. Don't miss it.

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