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MOVIES | February 11, 2009
Movie Review | 'Great Speeches From a Dying World': Oratory From the Streets: The Homeless Lift Their Voices
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
"Great Speeches From a Dying World" is an unsettling documentary portrait gallery of nine homeless people living on the streets of Seattle.
They don't have it on NetFlix, the service to which I subscribe, dang it.
Have you seen this?
I worry a great deal about documenting the lives of very vulnerable populations. I suspect this wasn't produced by a person who was ever homeless, but I'm not sure.
"At these times the premise feels like a stunt that has backfired."
I suspect it might be exploitive in its premise of having homeless people read famous writings. It reminds me of putting lepers in formal attire and photographing them for a gallery exhibit, to impress the art and academic communities and increase one's cache in the grant-writing world for future projects. Parenthetically, I have the same qualms about Diane Arbus (even though she was pretty much reviled by the arts and academic communities of her time).
I'd much prefer to just allow homeless people to speak for themselves. Better yet, give THEM the cameras, audio and editing equipment, along with some training in how to use them, and see what they come up with. That's much more interesting to me. And pay THEM!
I saw a BRILLIANT documentary out of India once about children of prostitutes. They gave the kids cameras and taught them how to use them. Those kids produced the most compelling compositions from the world they inhabited. It was heartbreaking, thrilling, inspiring, uplifting and devistating, all at the same time. Quite poignant. At the end of the film, there was an announcement of how to support the photography project.
It's like all those anthropologists who filmed "the natives." I wish they'd given the cameras to the peoples they were "studying," and let them film the anthropologists! Better than the Marx Brothers, I'll bet!
Of course, I like it when National Geographic uses "fish cams," too: film from the subject's own perspective. It's just more honest and direct than holding bait and enticing sharks toward your camera.
Filming homeless people reading literature elevates the literature (oh, it's so universal, so true, so brilliantly insightful), but further segregates the homeless person from the larger society: the audience will be thinking, in the backs of their minds, "These words would never have come from that persno's mouth, without the intervention of the producers." My fear is they'll also think, "How nice, the producers brought culture to these pathetic wretches!" Framing the tragedy of these people's lives in elevated language allows the audience to distance itself from the real perspective of the subject. It seduces the audience into thinking, "I relate to those words because of something in my own life, and I'm not homeless. What's wrong with these losers?" Now, the words of homeless people can't do that.
I make it a habit to suspect the motives of artsy documentarians who turn their cameras on the vulnerable, forgive me.
WARNING: RHETORICAL QUESTIONS ALERT!
I would like to know more about the production staff's familiarity with homeless issues, whether they volunteer as community organizers, etc., in addition to making films. Are the showings of this film benefits for homeless people? Is there any information in the film to empower audiences to go out and DO something about homelessness and its root causes? Or, are they just social science majors or do-gooders, dispensing their sense of superiority along with the soup? I'm really suspicious.
When that woman said she got bored from being clean and sober, did anybody ask follow up questions, challenge the statement, offer her alternatives to boredom, introduce her to a role model who is clean and NOT bored or boring?
Did the film makers walk away from these people without doing anything to assist them in plugging in to the resources they need? Or did they walk away with their grant money and their film festival tickets, leaving these people as bad off as -- if not worse off than --before? Has there been any follow-up with the subjects?
I watched a collection, "The Ultimate Lesbian Short Film Festival" recently. Most of these were produced by film majors in Los Angeles universities. Parenthetical: if the opening titles are very fancy, the film sucks: just an observation.
There was one, "Tina Paulina: Living on Hope Street" that really pissed me off. The filmmaker, who narrates, admits she accidentally ran into Tina (this was on Hope St., downtown L.A. -- ironically, very near the first Women's Building). Here was a Lesbian filmmaker, getting course credit (and probably a grant, as well as being in this collection) for filming a Lesbian homeless woman, and speaking SO condescendingly and, yes PATRONizingly about her, as you can tell by the title. I was embarrassed for the film maker. Tina put on a VERY good show, behaving very cheerfully and chin up (she was hustling the film maker for pity money, but the film maker was too naive to understand that). The film maker left without giving Tina anything. Later, she returned to the corner on what Tina had told her was her birthday a week later. No Tina, of course; Tina was trying to get back to Arizona. Tina had been TRYING to say: I need money, so I'm going to tell you next week's my birthday, rather than asking you directly for a hand-out, as I've assured you, repeatedly, that I don't panhandle or use drugs." Tina was high as a kite, of course, as she pulled up her sleeves to reveal she had no needle marks. She said everybody around here uses heroin. I guess she felt very superior, exhibiting symptoms of crack, meth or some other drug that made her VERY hyper and chipper and is smoked, not shot up. The film maker was CLUELESS!
My point is, if you inflict enough pain on it, even a bear will dance to entertain.
When dealing with the most vulnerable members of a culture, it's usually more productive to shut up and listen, rather than imposing an artificial agenda or set of assumptions. They've been imposed on enough.
Now, I'm saying all this without seeing a frame of this movie. Did you see it and what did you think, if you did?