Maria Fuentes, one of th documentary's co-directors, and her boyfriend Juan. (Courtesy of filmmaker)
Oakland documentary editor and director Kyung Lee is, to coin a phrase, a FIMBY. As in “film in my back yard.”
“It’s not like I intended to make a film about homelessness,” Lee says of her new film We R Here. “The encampment was so close to where I live, so I was giving out water, sandwiches, garbage bags, that type of thing, and I got to know them. All of them told me that they were looking for work. I thought, ‘Well, what can I do to help them?’”
Filmmaker and visual artist Kim Anno, whose doc-in-progress about LGBTQ+ activism in Cuba (¡Quba!) is one of Lee’s current editing (and co-producing) projects, introduced Lee to the concept of social practice. Also called socially engaged art, its key elements are the artist’s participation in the milieu, and collaboration between subject and artist.
Lee reached out to a dozen or so unhoused people, offering a tiny weekly stipend out of her own pocket and a SIM card to store video on their cellphone. “In the end, three people were able to commit to the project. So [the stipend] wasn’t that enticing, I guess,” she says with a laugh.
The trio of subjects filmed themselves, becoming the film’s co-directors, and Lee cut the footage into intimate, open-ended portraits. “It was an experiment, in a sense, that turned into 17-minute short films,” she says. We R Here screens Tuesday, Oct. 25 at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater, wrapping up a mini-run around the Bay Area this month.
James Goodwin, aka DJ Nyce, lives in his car in and around San Leandro. He works on his rap rhymes, imagining the album he’s going to record. He’s connected to his mother, who calls semi-regularly to hand off a meal she just cooked. With intelligence and self-awareness, he talks about his goals, which involve both making music and working on his sobriety.
North Carolina natives and avowed Christians Billy and Jennifer live in a parked RV in Oakland. They rely on his panhandling and the kindness of strangers, but the pandemic delivers a setback. Relegated to living in a tent in Emeryville, they decide to wheel their earthly possessions over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. Billy lands a job sweeping out a shop in the avenues and waxes optimistic about the future, including reuniting with their teenage daughters.
Maria and Juan live in that Oakland encampment near Lee’s apartment, where he diligently plants flowers and tomato seedlings on its borders. “Wherever you want to keep clean, grow flowers,” Juan declares, figuring they discourage people from dumping garbage. Liaisons from the city tout the new lot for operational-only RVs across the street, and a volunteer from Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program (ECAP) drops off a veritable buffet of cooked food. But a wrongful (according to Maria) accusation lands Juan in jail for six months.
Plenty of films have been made about unhoused people, typically with the goal of humanizing a population many viewers are resistant to identifying with. The warts-and-all first-person studies that comprise We R Here are more nuanced, and challenge and confound the usual impulses — to root for the film’s subjects, or blame the system, or blame them, or just throw up one’s hands.
To put it another way, Lee hasn’t made an advocacy piece, or a work of social activism. We R Here doesn’t have an agenda, a villain or a hero. She describes the trilogy as “snapshots” crafted and presented as “a day in the life.” Her filmmaking philosophy—on display in Telos: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui (2014), her deeply involving hour-long profile of the uncompromising Berkeley architect and designer — is refreshingly non-judgmental.
“The approach I took in this film is to illustrate both the uniqueness of each character and the parallel circumstances they similarly experience due to their poverty,” Lee explains. “My goal as a filmmaker is to create an atmosphere and a lingering impression where audiences are left to wonder and to reflect further. I am aware that many people have strong feelings about people living on the streets. I hope that by watching this film they can look beyond their preconceived ideas.”
At the same time, Lee doesn’t sugar-coat the situations in which the subjects of We R Here are enmeshed, or suggest a more hopeful resolution of their frustrated dreams than the circumstances we’ve seen in the film warrant.
“They kind of stayed the same,” she says. “I don’t think it got better. The way I edited it is what I saw. In the end, they’re still in the same spot.”
As an editor, Lee was true to the essence of her material. As a human being and a neighbor, her wish is that the finished pieces contribute to a material change in her co-directors’ living conditions.
“I hope that by getting their stories out there, this leads to them eventually securing housing,” Lee says. “Although housing alone won’t solve all of their problems, this is their biggest need and they will be unable to move forward without it. Giving them exposure, I hope, will lead to something better than what they have now.
The New Parkway screening at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 25 with Lee and her co-directors will be followed by a panel discussion about the unhoused population with the Oakland mayoral candidates. All well and good, except that framing positions We R Here as an issue film and, perhaps, a work of political activism. That’s a little ways from where Kyung Lee began, filming her — and our — neighbors.
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