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.
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.
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.