Lost Angelsgoes into the heart of L.A.’s sketchiest area - Skid Row. More than a simple look at urban poverty, this film looks at the community that has formed amongst the desperate, the drug addicted and the mentally ill.
In many instances, they may have nothing more than their community. In the past half decade, legislation has effectively made being homeless illegal, and Lost Angels looks at where these people go when their last option is terminated.
Director Thomas Napper talks with us about the origins for the film, the people he met and what he learned in the through it all.
What inspired the making of this film? It looks like it started after the fateful Safer Cities Initiatives act, which effectively made being homeless a crime.
The people I met from Skid Row inspired the documentary. I was amazed and humbled by their sense of humour, their dignity and their brutal honesty. In 2008 I came to L.A. to work as second unit on a film called The Soloist with Joe Wright. We worked with the community on Skid Row and did two days of improv and acting with a group from LAMP (a progressive mental health facility in the heart of Skid Row).
In those sessions it was clear to me that there was a documentary project here and that this group of people would be interested and enthusiastic about telling their stories to an Englishman with no experience of life in South Central.
Had you any previous exposure or knowledge about Skid Row or L.A. before the film?
Not really, I had been to white L.A., Hollywood, Santa Monica etc. several times but never really to Downtown or South Central. It's not somewhere people go for coffee, although that is changing with the gentrification of Downtown, which is pushing out the poor and homeless.
Developers built and converted parts of Main St. and Broadway (the historic district) and the LAPD and politicians have effectively begun a land sweep. This often happens in cities that are about to stage the Olympics, but in this case LA has built the Staples Centre and the Nokia Centre and it's right next to all the missions and services that the 70,000 homeless use to eat, sleep and shelter.
The politicians, the mayor and the police don't want the world to see this level of poverty in a first world city, so they are trying to arrest their way out of poverty. The prisons are doing very brisk business with small and insignificant street citations. One woman I talked to was arrested for flicking cigarette ash. There are thousands of incidents of similarly pointless and brutal policing and rough justice.
KK with girlfriend Detroit. KK was murdered on the very streets he called home.
The interviewees from Skid Row are all more than willing to tell their story. Was it hard to find people to open up about such personal details?
I was really fortunate to have six months of getting to know you time before I began the doc. We were shooting The Soloist in and around Skid Row and many members of the community were used by Joe (Wright, director of The Soloist) as extras in this big studio picture.
It was all pretty exciting, but once that finished I was just standing on Skid Row with KK (Kevin Kurran, my skid row guide, security, and right hand man). People didn't really expect me to stay, they were curious about the motives, ‘what was I trying to say?’
So I started where I felt safest and that was in the Skid Row church on a Sunday morning. I kept turning up, talking to the pastor, singing gospel and meeting everyone in the community.
This was how I started to feel safe, this was the turning point and I think somehow, this is when people started to trust me. That trust was the key really, because that was when I felt accepted, and that's when I started to look at Skid Row as a community under siege and not a Human Rights catastrophe.
Out of the many people you talked to, whose story did you find most moving?
So many, very hard to pick one. It was so difficult to narrow it down to eight people. I spent a lot of time with Linda Harris and her boyfriend Robert Bird. I think because her disability is so visual and her courage in dealing with her illness is so inspiring.
She just turns her problems and her pain into humour, she sings from a very profound place and once KK had been murdered, she became my touchstone for news and goings on 'on the row'. I think in a sense her story is the most important in terms of breaking down the stigma that is attached to mental illness, disability, addiction and homelessness.
Bam Bam, a transgender former drug addict, shed light on the drug abuse many with mental illness face.
Did you and your crew always feel safe trailing people in such a rough neighbourhood?
In a word, no. It helped that we had skid row people in the crew. At one point I had Bam Bam as a grip. KK as assistant director and Rainbow Dolan doing the catering. No one wants to mess with two schizophrenics and a 6' 7" drag queen! We had moments every time we filmed, but I never felt particularly threatened personally, it was just the unease of the camera.
Crack dealers generally don't want to be filmed while they are working so we had to be quite careful and in the main I made sure there was always a 'character' in front of camera so people knew we weren't just filming randomly. It's strange to think about it now but death is close by on Skid Row, you really sense that edge, and I had to put it aside or I would never have made the film. I'm from north London so not exactly streetwise to gang life in L.A. but after two years down there I could see a problem heading towards me much sooner and learnt not to show my fear or act out in the face of an irate gang member.
Filming was always risky- drug transactions are frequent in the area and dealers don't take kindly to playing extras in the background.
There are several scenes where you film police interaction with people from Skid Row. Were they generally cooperative?
They were very well behaved whenever there was a camera rolling, they are all too aware of the problems created by video evidence. I got involved with LACAN, a human rights organization on Skid Row and they had hundreds of tapes chronicling the police action on Skid Row and we used a lot of it on the film. A lot of this material was shot on phones and stills cameras by the homeless.
The LAPD kept saying 'This is not a dog and pony show' when what they were showing me was quite clearly staged. I think the LAPD are very well versed in PR and managing the publics understanding of what they do. My film was about the lives and experiences of people on Skid Row and their experience of the police was the focus rather than the spin the police produced to defend Safer Cities.
What were you hoping to accomplish from this? I feel impassioned to do something. What can people do?
Thank you, that's kind of you. I think that we made the film with a sense of righteous injustice at the treatment of homeless human beings in a very rich and indifferent city. It made me sick to the stomach to see the mishandling of addiction and mental illness in this way.
Our aim became our cause, and that was to get this story to a wider audience and to open up the debate about the handling of mental illness, homelessness and addiction in L.A. specifically, but also in the US as a whole.
There are 3.5 million homeless and mentally ill people in the richest country in the world, it's a staggering amount of people. All of them need help from a social system that just doesn't have the resources it requires to deal with those numbers.
Lost Angels is released 27 March 2011
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