Seeing the Invisible: Homelessness on Film

Film still from 'Dogtown Redemption.'  (© Amir Soltani)

Movies, from their earliest incarnations, have enabled human beings to glimpse and vicariously experience the lives of others. Something happens when we’re shown our similarities as well as our differences that compels us to become more empathetic to those whose daily struggles are not our own. So say philosophers, theologians, social scientists and several thousand filmmakers, not to mention a century’s worth of moviegoers.

Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on the subject -- and the subjects. To put it bluntly, of all the social issues that moviemakers tackle, homelessness is probably the hardest sell to audiences. It hits too close to home (literally), and we don’t seek out for edification what we see, and perhaps seek to avoid, every day. Maybe we’re uncomfortable with (that is, guilty about) injustices linked to class and race. Whatever the cause, for many of us there’s a hurdle to watching movies about homeless people. Here are some suggestions to get over the hump.


Hotel 22

Elizabeth Lo packed a remarkable amount of insight and craft into this eight-minute observational documentary she made in 2014 as a graduate student in Stanford’s illustrious documentary program. The 22 bus runs 24/7 between Palo Alto and San Jose, and homeless people avail themselves of the late-night runs to catch some shuteye and avoid the elements. Hotel 22 (streaming in The New York Times’ Op-Docs series, after you endure an advertisement) takes us somewhere that’s unknown and invisible to most of society. Catch a ride.

#BeRobin

After Robin Williams’ death in 2014, fellow comedian and native San Franciscan Margaret Cho channeled her grief into a constructive activity: performing on S.F.’s streets to raise money and clothing donations for homeless people. Other comedians and performers followed suit; that activity, in turn, inspired a TV-length documentary. If you think of watching films about homelessness as medicine, action and humor is the sugar that helps it go down.

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Lava Mae: Mobile Hygiene for the Homeless

Want a quick hit of solution-based success? This sub-four-minute video, one of hundreds of short films produced by the local company Micro-Documentaries, provides a bouncy introduction to S.F.-based Lava Mae’s concept of converting go-anywhere buses to showers for people without access. Informational and impressionistic rather than journalistic, and determinedly upbeat, it accentuates the positive.

Dogtown Redemption

Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush’s immersive feature-length documentary uses Alliance Recycling in West Oakland as its hub to explore the lives of three homeless or formerly homeless people who derive(d) their livelihoods from collecting and hauling recyclables. The filmmakers dig deep into the problem, flinching neither from individual foibles and frailties (drugs, mental illness) or broader social complexities (pervasive unemployment, NIMBYism). Dogtown Redemption played all around the Bay Area after its fall 2015 premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and aired nationally in PBS’ Independent Lens series.

Time Out of Mind

Richard Gere is a movie star, but sometimes his most worthwhile projects fail to attract ink or audiences. In this exceptionally intelligent character study, Gere gives a deeply committed and convincing performance as a once-successful New Yorker living on the streets of Manhattan. We come to learn that George lost everything and alienated his family by way of drugs and alcohol, but his current state is far more compelling than his past. Writer-director Oren Moverman captures the day-to-day, moment-to-moment urgency of George’s predicament while the detailed sound design conveys the gulf between the busy, indifferent world and his fringe existence. It’s often easier for viewers to engage with reality through fictional scenarios, hence my inclusion of Time Out of Mind (presently streaming on Netflix). At the end of the day, it’s a film that’s distinguished by its integrity even more than its compassion.

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