Gimme Shelter: And Much More
French director Rémi Kessler’s heartwarming documentary The Advocates, which was screened at the LA Film Festival 2018, is now being theatrically released. The documentary takes an insider look at a compelling crisis that seems to be mushrooming across Los Angeles far beyond the confines of Skid Row: Homelessness. The 86 minute nonfiction film focuses in on a trio of L.A. organizers for whom the political is personal, as they work primarily for private organizations to assist the ever-expanding number of people living on the street. Sometimes there is public-private cooperation and people like these three activists are derisively referred to as “do-gooders.”
The most interesting one is Claudia Perez, who after years of substance, as well as sexual abuse, and being homeless herself not only turned her life around but founded LA on Cloud9 (https://www.laoncloud9.org/). In Advocates we see volunteers of this private organization distribute food, clothing, hygienic articles, etc., to the homeless – and even provide some care for their pets. Sometimes overwhelmed by the depths of the housing shortage Claudia is frustrated, but she’s a force of nature when she’s out there helping the down and out. By the end of the film Claudia is hired by a government agency as a social worker, and she continues her mission during her day job and in her free time.
Similarly driven, Rudy Salinas is depicted onscreen as persistently, conscientiously concentrating on getting people off of the streets and into their own homes as Program Director at a nonprofit, non-governmental organization, Housing Works (http://housingworksca.org/). He anguishes over his clients, shepherding them around L.A.’s mean streets in his car, fighting to find them shelter, get them off of substances, etc. Salinas is motivated and inspired by the more altruistic aspects of his deeply held Catholic faith.
With its behind the scenes vibe the film also shows some of the homeless people the organizers are advocating on behalf of. There are scenes of L.A. City Council meetings and measures regarding the housing emergency, which the film’s organizers criticize for not being properly funded and not doing and going far enough. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti is glimpsed at an event when one of those ballot measures is passed, but is not interviewed onscreen per se. Hizzoner’s Homelessness Policy Director Alisa Orduna is, however, interviewed as are County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and City Councilman David Ryu.
Academic and other expert talking heads are also interviewed, providing insights into the cause of this festering humanitarian catastrophe that former California Governor Ronald Reagan accelerated in the 1980s when he became president and dumped tens of thousands of institutionalized mentally ill people on the street. If memory serves correctly, it’s UCLA Professor of Law Emeritus Gary Blasi who points out that while this policy may have saved the government money in the short term, in the long term it’s far more expensive to try providing for masses of people encamped on urban sidewalks. Paul Teppler, Executive Director of Western Center on Law & Poverty, points out the economics of high rents (and you can add real estate costs) and stagnant, low wages, as a source of the calamity. “Do the math,” he asserts.
Kessler has previously made movie history documentaries, among others. The Advocates is certainly well-meaning and does shed a lot of light on the human toll of our “urban refugees,” so to speak. But the film does not have a form or style as compelling as its subject matter. Other documentarians find the means to grab viewers by the lapel and hold their attention while spinning their stories. Michael Moore famously deploys his proletarian persona as his films’ onscreen narrator. Some nonfiction films, such as 2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, deploy highly creative, cinematic techniques to keep auds enthralled.
The problem is how do you get those who are not already sympathetic to this cause to watch films like The Advocates, so you’re not just preaching to the choir? How can you get that Trump supporter who might say Rudy Salinas’ Central American, substance-abusing client should go back where he came from and that U.S. resources – public and private – should not be wasted on “outsiders”? How can you screen documentaries like this for those who believe “charity begins at home”?
I admire the film’s do-gooders but if we really want to solve the homeless epidemic, I suggest that homeless people, who number in the tens of thousands in L.A., should band together and march en masse with housing and other allies on City Hall – and in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Bel Air, etc., and demand their human rights. Which, among them, is the right for all to have a roof over their head. To paraphrase that old sixties’ slogan: “Bring the war HOME!”