Lead Me Home is already rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A-listers in the Oscars nominations – but its stars could be doing the same on the red carpet later this month.
Up for the short documentary gong at the prestigious film awards, co-directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk spent three years filming in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles to help some of the 500,000 people on the streets in the US tell their emotionally charged stories of their daily struggle to survive.
It’s a real tear-jerker, telling tales of women trying to escape abusive partners and men chewed up and spat out by the criminal justice system. In one scene a woman, 32 weeks pregnant following a traumatic sexual assault, defiantly tells a support worker how she has been failed by the system and how she “will not lose her family to homelessness”. Everyone on screen is in tears, and you will be too.
At 40 minutes running time, it’s a whistle-stop tour through these powerful personal stories punctuated with a soundtrack of meditative soundscapes and ambient city sounds and shots showing urban life relentlessly passing people by.
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The camera’s gaze explores the hypocrisy at the heart of our society, too, with plenty of shots lingering on flashy new developments and people living in upmarket flats juxtaposing the terrible conditions in sprawling tent cities.
“Pedro and I, along with our producer, Bonni Cohen, thought that it was time to tell a story that attempts to humanise this issue,” says Shenk in an interview with The Big Issue.
“Too often in our media and our discourse, we tend to talk about this crisis in a way that blames the victims of the crisis rather than reminding us that there are actually up to 600,000 Americans who sleep without a home every night.”
He continues: “In many ways, our cities have been turned into refugee camps and that was another important aspect of this film: to show the scale and the scope of the problem.
“The film really is deeply personal and human but also attempts to show patterns.”
While Lead Me Home uses those patterns to uncover the problems that lead to homelessness, it is light on solutions, unless viewers read between the lines.
Instead it is more of an activist’s rallying cry – and a powerful one at that as it now has Oscars recognition to bring added weight.
Attention on the biggest stage is a useful tool, according to Kos.
“We want to just infuse the dialogue with a little more humanity and the recognition helps to crack that cloak of invisibility,” he says.
“We really wanted to hear from the people experiencing homelessness themselves and also from the people working on the frontlines of this to really shift perspective. I think it shows that people are connecting on a human level.”
Lead Me Home is likely to get even more attention on the red carpet if the directors’ plans to bring some of the film’s stars to the awards ceremony go ahead.
It would be a “dream” to bring any of the 15 people experiencing homelessness whose stories are explored in the film to the Oscars, they tell The Big Issue.
That is particularly true for Ronnie ‘Futuristic Astaire’ Willis. Once a successful choreographer, Willis is now homeless on Hollywood Boulevard after a series of unfortunate events.
In fact, in the film he is even shown dancing on the footpath just across the road from the Dolby Theatre – where the Oscars ceremony will be held on March 27.
As Willis puts it, he’s only missing one thing that could make a huge difference to his life: “Once I have my housing, I have my base and I can do what I need to do.”
For Kos and Shenk, having Willis join them on the red carpet would be a fitting post-credits sequence for the film, win or lose.
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“The idea of Futuristic joining us for some of the Oscar festivities would be a dream come true for us. In a way it is kind of symbolic of this whole process and is way more about people like him than it is about Pedro and I,” says Shenk.
“For Pedro and me, there is the realisation that there is all this incredible untapped potential out there on the streets. And yet, they’re not able to offer that to the world right now because they spend so much of their time maintaining things that we all take for granted.”
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