There’s a scene in Brenton Gieser’s documentary film Tender Souls in which a young girl named Emily walks down the street, with her mother at her side, as she celebrates her third birthday.
The duo ventures through San Francisco’s notoriously rough Tenderloin neighborhood, holding colorful celebratory bags, toward a crowd of people posted on a corner. The crowd gives warning the little girl is coming. Not so they can cue up a sing-along to "Happy Birthday" (although one man does eventually sing to her), but to make sure that all the drugs are put away and the corner is a kid-friendly environment — if only for a moment.
This scene is symbolic of the film as a whole. It shows kindness in the middle of this “rough” community. It shows people taking time to understand and respect the presence of this little girl. And most importantly, it shows the significance of understanding someone’s life story, even if only for a few moments on their third birthday.
Society has developed a number of ways to assist people living in “rough” neighborhoods, in the margins of society, in the shadows of Silicon Valley and on the streets of San Francisco. There are outreach and intake programs, mental health offices and drug addiction clinics, halfway houses and houses of the lord.
There are legislators, both on a local and statewide level, who seem to care. But last week, during his State of the State speech, Governor Jerry Brown failed to mention rising homelessness in California, completely avoiding one of the biggest issues in the state. That same week, Leilani Farha, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to housing, visited Oakland and San Francisco. She was appalled at the way people were living.
To her credit, Farha didn’t just drive by and shake her head at the shantytown-like compounds of tents and other makeshift structures, cropping up with increasing regularity in the Bay Area. Instead, she spoke to the people living in them, and got an understanding of their stories.
And that’s what Tender Souls does: seeks understanding in order to puts these stories in context.
Filmmaker and photographer Brenton Gieser uses the analogy of a funnel to describe the process of addressing the needs of those living in poor housing situations. “The movement toward change starts with stories,” Gieser says. He believes that understanding the background of someone’s life story is imperative to assisting them. “And then, you get more narrow, where the actual change happens.”
He knows that it’s not just a matter of hearing someone’s story and then, voilà!, problem solved. “I think soulful change is a multifaceted thing," says Gieser. "It can’t just be 'hey, make a nice film' and that’s it. ”
Gieser, 32, has been working as a documentarian in the Tenderloin for two and a half years. He's also behind the Tender Souls photo project with collaborator Felix Uribe, and has represented the younger generation on a special committee at Glide Memorial Church.
With the help of City Hope as executive producers, Gieser and his team made Tender Souls on a shoestring budget, shot it just over a week, and although he’s had multiple screenings and has accumulated over 35,000 views on Vimeo, he has made no money off the film.
And yet through making “a nice film,” he has the chance to reach audiences who might have the resources to assist — you know, the people who just drive/bus/rideshare past the shantytown-like villages under freeway overpasses on their way to their well-paying jobs.
A person could stand in the heart of the Tenderloin and throw a crack rock to the doorstep of some of the wealthiest businesses in the world. It makes absolutely no sense why the disparity in wealth is so geographically close. Gieser wants to change that. “With tech being the pervasive culture, we’re seeing the polarization of different cultures between the haves and have nots. It’s important to capture the attention of the people who aren’t walking through the Tenderloin.”
Gieser is just one of the many individuals and organizations who do this work. In San Francisco, Glide Memorial has been a cornerstone for eons. On my side of the Bay, in Oakland, the work of organizations such as The Village in Oakland, the East Oakland Collective and the People’s Breakfast Oakland is more than necessary. As Gieser said, it’s going to take a multifaceted effort. It’s going to take legislation and healthcare. It’s going to take organized religion and random individuals. And it’s going to take understanding and compassion.
But before all that, at the wider end of the funnel, Gieser remains a firm believer that the power of empathy can alter the situation. To that end, he’ll continue to screen his film and work in the neighborhood.
“Stories have the power to not only educate," he says, "but to open hearts, and to break hearts.”
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.