Go Where the Story Takes You: How the Moviemakers Behind The Advocates Shaped Their Documentary

In 2015 at a café with my friend George Haas, a Buddhist, a panhandler approached us to ask for money.

I responded negatively. Nonetheless, I watched as George took out a dollar bill that said, “Love People And Feed Them” and handed it to the man. I’m sad to say it never occurred to me to approach panhandling with George’s compassion before. But something in that moment changed my path to one that would ultimately take up three years of my life and change my heart and mind. The result is a documentary film that sold out its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month.

More importantly than my own spotlight moment, it highlighted on a grand scale the work being done by the unsung heroes of Los Angeles. The caseworkers and volunteers who interact every day with our city’s homeless population; The Advocates.

When I began working on the film in May 2015, I did what any documentary moviemaker would. I researched, then researched some more, and then jumped into the field with both feet, but no camera. Building a trust and understanding for the lay of the land before picking up my camera mattered more than usual here. The position of people experiencing homelessness is vulnerable. 

The beginnings of my script were in tow. Next was a focus on an essay style film addressing the history and current causes of homelessness in Los Angeles. I stumbled across a Craigslist post seeking volunteers for food distribution on Skid Row. No website, no 501c3, just a post on Craigslist and a guy named Mel Tillekeratne. Mel took a wrong turn home from a party and stumbled upon the epicenter of the crisis.

Mel had amassed a large team of volunteers. They meet in rain, hail, or shine, and distribute food consistently at 8:30pm every weeknight on Skid Row. Why so late? As I found out, many of the homeless residents of skid row are a part of the ‘working homeless.’ They live on low wages, a high cost of living, and no safety net. The only thing standing between many Angelenos and homelessness is a single moment of bad luck.

Mel allowed me to become a part of his ‘Monday Night Mission’ group, and I gladly took the role of ‘greeter.’ As people came up to get their food, it was my job to greet them, find out their name, and have them warmly welcomed by the group. This single moment of acknowledgement towards their existence and humanity sparked a twinkle in their eyes. It quickly became the reason I fell in love with the Mel’s work, the Monday Night Mission team, and all the advocates serving LA’s homeless population.

Claudia Perez, founder of LA on Cloud9, distributes goods to a homeless individual in Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio

I went to skid row 4 nights a week for several years, and followed another Advocate, Claudia Perez, Founder of LA on Cloud9 in her street outreach. You have to establish trust that you aren’t going to jeopardize the work they are doing by filming it. I spent a lot of time without a camera, just to understand how they worked. I might have missed some footage, but it was worth it and necessary. You have to understand why they do what they do and become one of them so you’re not a liability or an intrusion.

Eventually I threw out my script and my six-month initial timeframe for filming, and decided to go where the stories took me, for as long as was necessary. To say that my producer and editor, Robert McFalls, wasn’t a fan of this choice would be the understatement of the year. Luckily for me, he stuck with it and ultimately pushed me to go deeper.

Scheduling a single day was not possible, let alone a week, month, or year. To film the work of an advocate means to work when they work, and go where they go. In other words, it means unpredictable call outs. Trips to help a client in the middle of the nigh. Appointments at all hours of the day to support their clients in seeking rehabilitation and medical care, and a never-ending parade of phone calls and driving through LA traffic.

For the stories of our advocates, it was enough for me to identify a beginning, and a body to their stories. Robert edited the narratives accordingly. While we’d thrown out the concept of a formal script, I did recognize that a topic like homelessness couldn’t solely be presented through that narrative of the advocates working to solve it. The causes of the crisis are so wide reaching and complex. None of the experts could fully agree on how to fix it. As Council member Mike Bonin put it, “The only thing more controversial than homelessness, is finding solutions to homelessness.”

As a director, you need to be confident in what you know, and aware of what you don’t know. When it came to this issue, I knew I needed to enlist the help of someone else to script a pathway that explored the politics, the history, and the causes of LA’s homelessness crisis. Linda Othenin-Girard was the perfect choice. Linda is a veteran of public radio, and expert story teller when it comes to the nuanced, political, and controversial topics. Her knowledge allowed us to work together and find a simple pathway through the political landscape of the issue.

With Linda’s help, we found the experts needed to define the context of this crisis. However, this created a challenge in crafting the structure of the film—we were torn between structuring the film as a visual essay and structuring it in the cinema verité style. Every time we attempted to resolve this, it felt like we were taking two steps forward and one step back. By accepting some compromise, we were able to produce a film that both did the topic justice and created a pretty extensive list of DVD extras. The film was ultimately about emotion. The choices of what to keep and what to cut were made with emotion as the priority. Creating a seamless experience from beginning to end that could change a viewer’s heart and mind on the issue.

The advocates brought hope, inspiration, and stories to the film. The expert interviews provided the understanding of the pathway to homelessness that the viewer needed to fully appreciate what the advocates do.

A Homeless Encampment in Downtown Los Angeles

When I began in the fall of 2015, and immediately I could see little fires around the city of people wanting to do something about homelessness. There were two key budget measures approved as I filmed. I captured those events in real time. Measures H and HHH provided a significant amount of hope to the advocates we were filming, the organizations they worked for, and the communities they were assisting.

Suddenly the city and the county were coming together, and that’s a feeling I tried to capture, and I think that’s where the feeling of hope comes through in the film for the viewer.

After two solid years of lumping hours upon hours of footage in the lap of Robert for his editing and guidance, I began to be on the receiving end of his gentle suggestions that it may be time to wrap. Obviously, I didn’t listen, and continued to bring him more, and more, and more footage. As I near the end of one story I get wrapped up in a new one. Eventually, Robert’s gentle stops turned into a far more forceful “stop now, or we’ll never finish.” I heeded Robert’s warning, and stopped filming.

If I could give one piece of advice to any documentary moviemaker, it would be to trust your editor when he or she tells you it’s time to stop, even when, as a director, you may feel like there can never be enough coverage. Directors and editors both rely on one another. Without each other, you’re unable to move forward, so it’s imperative that you learn to work together as a team and bring support to one another.

The two most important decisions Robert and I had to make together were around film length, and the overarching story. Whether we created a 50-minute or 90-minute film was a big discussion point. Ultimately, knowing what I’d captured in filming, I was confident in pushing for a 90-minute feature. Robert trusted me on that. The second decision was really a series of smaller decisions, and that came down to the stories we wanted to tell. We spent more time than I’d like to admit, storyboarding out the film on flashcards, structuring it to get across both the advocates individual stories, and the topic of homelessness more broadly.

Ultimately, The Advocates captures an historic moment in the evolution of homelessness in Los Angeles. I hope from the bottom of my heart that in 10 years, homelessness will have been solved—that this film will just be a document depicting a moment in time when the city came together to solve a crisis. MM

The Advocates opens in theaters in Los Angeles on October 19, 2018, courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio. All images courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio.

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