Hollywood filmmakers turn the spotlight on world’s homelessness crisis

Courtesy of INSP News Service www.INSP.ngo / The Big Issue

By Adrian Lobb and Steven MacKenzie

Richard Gere is one of the most famous faces in cinema but during the making of his latest film, “Time Out of Mind,” in which he plays George, a homeless man living on the streets of New York, he found himself being completely ignored by passers-by.

“I was invisible in New York,” he said in a report made available to the world’s street papers via the INSP News Service. “Because I was this character, people decided within two blocks of seeing me that I was homeless and didn’t look any further. No one made any eye contact. It was confusing and profound.

“If Richard Gere, who has money and fame—and in this situation everyone thinks kindly about me—if I can stand on a street corner and be treated like garbage? That’s a profound lesson for me personally but for an audience it should be as well. It radically changed my view of myself and of the social fabric around me.”

Gere shared his experiences making the film during a private screening with vendors from One Step Away, a street paper based in Philadelphia. Gere believes “vendors have done something heroic. They’ve pulled themselves out of a very deep ditch, they’re survivors.”

Jerry Tucker (One Step Away), Richard Gere, Emily Taylor (One Step Away), Credit: Al B

Jerry Tucker (One Step Away), Richard Gere, Emily Taylor (One Step Away). Credit: Al B.

Like buses, you wait ages for a film focusing on homeless characters then several show up at once. Out now is Maggie Smith’s quirky vagabond in Alan Bennett’s cosy and quaint “The Lady in the Van,” which will be followed by “Hector,” starring Peter Mullan. “It is an important subject to tackle,” said Mullan. “When you are so disenfranchised, there’s so little you can do. You can only exist for the absolute immediate moment, and that is when you become invisible.

“We all make assumptions about people on the street. You see some poor soul lying there and think he must be a junkie or an alcoholic. Sadly, we see more and more people just rubbering, as we say, the homeless, be they Roma, be they Caucasian Scots, be they the recent emergé of whatever ethnic group. They are being ignored.”

The film follows Hector’s pilgrimage from Scotland to London to celebrate Christmas with his sister. “The character’s journey is the thing Jake [Gavin, Hector’s director] and I worked on,” Mullan explained. “At one point the script had alcoholism as being what pushed Hector over the edge but that was the glaringly obvious one. My sister worked with the homeless for a long time. I met a lot of homeless guys who didn’t drink and didn’t smoke but had mental health issues, be they temporary or long term. They couldn’t cope with their responsibility in the world.

“Now we have this horrendous housing crisis, where, regardless of mental abilities or addictions, we are back to a ‘Cathy Come Home’ situation, where we have whole families being evicted because of benefit cuts and sanctions. The next big epidemic is going to be homelessness. I feel I have to talk out.

“In the ‘80s, the movie industry got into ‘greed is good’ and Wall Street, which made it look incredibly glamorous. It has always been the case. And it always will be if we allow their voices to reign and if we don’t have honest, original responses to it.”

Homelessness has been a big issue for a long time but rarely makes for big box office figures. Hector’s producer Stephen Malit described the difficulty securing distribution. “We premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival and got good reviews,” he said.

“We screened it to distributors but the nature of the film industry at the moment is you’re either big or you’re no one. We had a couple of offers but they were pretty lousy. So many will put it out but they won’t get behind it. So I got together with a cinema booker, we went to the BFI (British film Institute), who adored it, and we’re putting it out in partnership from December 11.”

Hector is one of the few brave enough to battle “Star Wars” at the box office. “Literally everybody said you are insane trying to release a small art film at Christmas,” Malit said. “But let’s try, nobody else is going to do it! I’d like to think there’s a market for social realist films. I grew up in the ‘80s, and whether it was music or fashion shows—everything had something to say. We’ve gone bland.”

In an industry that loves shiny escapist blockbusters, why have some film-makers suddenly discovered homelessness? Paul Bettany, best known from “Master and Commander,” “A Beautiful Mind” and as Vision in the “Marvel” films, makes his directorial debut with “Shelter,” set against the homelessness crisis in New York. He believes the problem has become so great that film-makers can no longer ignore it.

“Art is a response to the culture in which you live,” he said. “Since the crash of 2008, the homelessness crisis is crazy, it’s everywhere. You’d have to be blind not to see it. That’s why I think there are movies about it. But it’s not like Hollywood has remade “The Fisher King”—Richard Gere and Peter Mullan’s films, like mine, are independent. All films, any film, is welcome. To be part of the discussion is really important.”

In “Shelter,” Bettany directs his wife Jennifer Connelly and fellow “Avengers” actor Anthony Mackie as a couple who have lost everything but find each other on the streets. “An agent of mine, who will remain nameless, said you can’t make a romance about homeless people because nobody wants to see them kiss,” said Bettany. “I was so shocked by the awfulness of the statement.

“What I heard was how they were thinking of these people as something other. That was what I wanted to discuss and examine. To present two people who on paper are unforgivable then make you love them because people are lovable when you get to know their stories.”

Films tackling homelessness is a trend set to continue into 2016. Pre-production is under way for “Hampstead,” starring Brendan Gleeson as a homeless man living on the Heath, and Diane Keaton as a wealthy American widow, who both take on property developers. The tale is based on a true story, as is, of course, the big screen adaptation of “A Street Cat Named Bob,” coming soon.

But cinema has long had a fascination with homeless characters. One of its earliest icons was Chaplin’s Little Tramp, who evolved from being a rambunctious vagrant in Keystone comedies to a lovable everyman, whose poverty was played as much for tears as laughter. Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that the character “became a man with a soul—a point of view.”

In more modern times, there’s been a return to homeless characters being used to reflect social issues. The BBC’s feature-length drama “Mr Stink” was a Christmas hit two years ago, reminding an audience of more than 6 million about the true meaning of the season, while last year’s highest-grossing British film, “Paddington,” contained more heart and punch when it came to engaging with migration and how to house people than most media and politicians have dared express.

Also scheduled for 2016 is a film that brings social commentary full circle. Fifty years after “Cathy Come Home” caused an outcry and debate in parliament, Ken Loach will release “I, Daniel Blake.” Like his 1966 game-changer, the film exposes those victimised and suffocated by the bureaucracy of a broken welfare system.

Reception and conversation with Richard Gere prior to an advance screening of his new film “Time Out of Mind,” Thursday Sept. 17, 2015, in Philadelphia. (Comcast Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)

Reception and conversation with Richard Gere prior to an advance screening of his new film “Time Out of Mind,” Thursday Sept. 17, 2015, in Philadelphia. Credit: Comcast Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek.

The film’s screenwriter, Paul Laverty, wrote it as a reaction to the way poor people are often portrayed on screen, in the media and in politics. “There’s been a grand narrative created about picking on the poorest in society,” said Laverty from an “I, Daniel Blake” shoot in Newcastle. “You’ll have seen endless programmes on various channels, what I call fascist TV, stereotyping strivers versus skivers. There is a punitive, judgmental element running underneath all these documentaries—it’s really their own fault and if they just got off their arses and found work…

“These programmes often focus on people who are massively vulnerable, who have a drink problem, who are obese, who are shouting and swearing, but when you talk to people at foodbanks, you find many of them are in work, many have worked for many years then something has happened to them. You see the nuances, the contradictions.”

“I, Daniel Blake” follows the struggle of a 59-year-old joiner who can no longer work after an illness. He meets a single mother of two forced to move from London to Newcastle because of the housing crisis that is crippling the capital. The film is a rage against the benefits machine, which hinders as much as it helps.

“If you look at the speeches from a lot of government figures, strivers versus skivers is a narrative they try to create,” Laverty said. “Life’s much more complicated—we have to break down and challenge that narrative.”