By Phil Hall | October 9, 2006

Tony Okun’s documentary “The Park” is a pleasant if somewhat peculiar film about how a municipal park affects the lives of urban dwellers. Okun takes his camera to a park for off-the-cuff interviews with various denizens who have turned up to walk their dogs, engage in martial arts and tai chi exercise, hang out with friends, or just read a newspaper. There are also conversations with the city workers and volunteers who staff a community center in the park, where youth sports leagues help keep the young ones busy and healthy.

“The Park” clearly wants to give the impression of urban oases as a universal experience, so the name and location of the grassy fields in the spotlight is not revealed (it is, though, easy enough to determine the park’s Los Angeles setting). However, this park clearly has problems that are not common in many urban parks: gang violence erupting in gunfire exchanges, rampant vandalism of municipal property, waves of homeless people living on the grounds, and a very obvious racial self-segregation among adults (African Americans using the basketball courts, Hispanics on the handball courts, whites on the open grass). The negative aspects of park life are mostly acknowledged in passing, as if they were temporary aberrations. A tour of the park at night reveals a shadowy and dangerous parallel universe which is fairly uncomfortable to watch (the people in the film talk about police patrols, but we never hear from the cops themselves about the park’s safety).

Okun offers playful considerations of the park’s various meanings to different people. When asking his interview subjects where they’d be if the park did not exist, the answers range from a library to jail to a private world of insanity. The people interviewed here clearly enjoy their surroundings and insist they are better people because of their park access. The ultimate consensus here is a major thumbs-up for parks.

At 71 minutes, “The Park” is somewhat too long for a sentimental tribute to the subject; a 54-minute version made for public television would probably achieve better results in a shorter time span (I watched the longer version for this review). Yet in taking aim at what many might perceive as a mundane subject, “The Park” provides a cheery celebration of a simple yet welcome diversion from city living.

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