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The frame might be shaky at times, the image a little blurry, but Cinema From the Street, a documentary series produced by the Street Sense newspaper’s video co-op, sends a clear message. The cast and crew, a team of current or formerly homeless men and women, are more comfortable telling their stories when they can also peer through the lens.
“It was my life calling, doing this type of stuff,” says Levester Green, 42, a quiet man with a wan smile who directed one of the three 20-minute films, a feature about his life in the streets. “It’s not a person’s personality—-it’s a person’s situation.”
Formed last April, Capturing Hope provides training and equipment to its members, who might have been attracted by the 10 free newspapers given out at the end of each session, but stayed to learn new skills and maybe make it onto the big screen. They all took turns working the cameras, writing the scripts, directing, editing, and starring. (Necessary disclosure: I’m currently working with the Street Sense Media Center on a separate documentary and website, Homelessly in Love.)
“It takes some getting used to, but once you get through the basics, it’s pretty much easy to work with,” says Sasha Williams, a 30-year-old single mother who shot two of the films, despite being blind in one eye. Now, “I get compliments on what I shoot.”
Producer Bryan Bello, a graduate student in film at American University, guided the filmmaking process and did the brunt of the editing work. But he tried to keep his fingerprints off the final product: “In documentation of homelessness, there tends to be a strong emphasis on suffering, and people are made to be victims,” he says. Here, directors get control over their narratives.
Reggie Black, 29, enjoyed the creative liberties he could take with shooting an entire film on a topic he knows well: the birth of the People for Fairness Coalition, a homelessness activist group formed in response to the 2008 closure of the Franklin School shelter. “We could really decide what we wanted to include,” he says. “We created the news itself.”
Black became politically active while trying to get by living in shelters, on the street, or on other people’s couches. “You start to learn who are the different people to talk to if you want to have a certain thing finished,” he says. Like his co-director Robert Warren, Black is no longer homeless—-he’s had his own room in Southeast for about four months—-but has kept on advocating on behalf of the “homeless community.”
“I just hope that [the films] will be a way to educate folks about housing issues,” says Warren, 54, who was homeless for nearly two years after losing his job as a sheet-metal worker, when tensions with his then-housemate escalated to the point where he packed his bags and left.
Warren wants to keep making films and videos on housing issues, starting with a director’s cut about the coalition’s work. Black hopes to create a media center and pursue his activism work.
For director Morgan Jones, an upbeat man with a high-pitched voice who likes to be known as “Morgan Valentino,” the documentary was a ploy to brush up his résumé. On Halloween Day last year, Bello drove the crew up to New York City in a packed SUV: six co-op members, including Green (who was stashed in the trunk), along with Williams’ baby daughter. The mission: to guilt David Letterman into giving Jones an internship on the Late Show.
Jones, 55, had applied the normal way, twice, with no luck. “I didn’t get accepted,” he says, showing off a plasticized copy of the rejection letter. “That’s like a dream. Somebody took time out to look online at my application.”
But when the team arrived in New York, Letterman was nowhere to be found. ”If I had a résumé they probably would have saw me,” Jones says. But he hopes the movie will sway the show into giving him, at the very least, a one-day internship. “You don’t give up on your dream.”
The production was a first shot at that for Green. After living in and out of shelters for about seven years, “I’m not counting my days of homelessness,” he says. “I don’t even have a wall to put a calendar on.” Now, though, “I actually feel like an ambassador for the homeless community.”
Green looks forward to tours, appearances, and spreading his film, I Am Levester Joe Green II, far and wide. “We’re just looking to keep the ball rolling,” he says.
Cinema from the Street screens April 29 at 6:30 p.m. at E Street Cinema. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.