A local nonprofit is giving Washington’s homeless the tools to film their experiences.

A group of activists march in the streets of the nation’s capital, demanding justice for its most vulnerable residents. A poet, down to his last dollar, struggles to put his life back together. A 55-year-old dreamer sets a course for New York City, determined to work on Late Show with his idol, David Letterman.

These are not biopics destined for Oscar’s shortlist. These are true stories written, produced, and directed by the homeless people who lived them.

All three documentaries—Fairness Rising, I Am Levester Joe Green II, and Late Show—came out of a filmmaking cooperative run by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Street Sense. The filmmakers, all currently or formerly homeless, have worked as Street Sense vendors, selling as well as contributing to the organization’s biweekly newspaper. In their bright yellow vests, vendors are fixtures on D.C. streets, popping up at Metro stations, grocery stores, and other high-traffic areas. But like the architecture of a familiar place, they are also routinely ignored, forgotten, invisible. And too often, when their stories are told, someone else gets to play narrator.

(Sara Nelson)

The Street Sense Filmmakers Co-op aims to change that by empowering homeless men and women to tell their own stories. Bryan Bello, a D.C.-based filmmaker, founded the program in 2014 while working on his own documentary about homelessness from an outsider’s perspective.

“In the process of doing it, you’re going to ask a lot of someone who’s already going through something very difficult, and you can make them no promises that it will actually change their situation,” Bello says. “So why do you do it in the first place? Just to tell a story? Storytelling’s important, but there’s a way you can do it where you’re guaranteed … [to] improve a person’s immediate existence. And that is if you help put the camera in someone’s hand, help educate someone, help them figure out what story it is they really want to tell.”

Bello brought the idea to Street Sense and, with some startup grant money, acquired the equipment and editing software to get started. Now he leads weekly filmmaking workshops at the organization’s downtown D.C. offices, training co-op members in the nuts and bolts of film production.

It’s a self-selected group of vendors who come back week after week, according to Street Sense executive director Brian Carome. “You had to prove with your presence at that meeting that you were capable of seeing a project to the end,” he says.

All participants agree to work on each other’s films in some capacity. The goal, Bello says, is “to have each aspect of production controlled by members of the group.”

(Sara Nelson)

As a result, each film is a total collaboration, starting with a months-long brainstorming process. When director Morgan Jones came in with his concept for Late Show, documenting his quest to become a Late Show intern, the others insisted that they take the production on the road. Instead of, say, grimly filming Jones filling out a job application in D.C., the team drove to New York in a rented SUV and picketed outside the Ed Sullivan Theater to drum up support for Jones’ campaign.

In this way, the crew played to the film’s greatest strength: the irrepressible ebullience of its star Morgan Jones, nicknamed “Valentino”—after the actor, not the fashion designer. “Somebody said I look like [Rudolph] Valentino,” says Jones. “You know, I look good in a suit.”

One co-op member, Sasha Williams, did almost all of the cinematography for Late Show. Bello handled the technical side of editing but worked closely with Jones and Williams to ensure that the finished product matched their vision as closely as possible.

(Sara Nelson)

For the other two films, I Am Levester Joe Green II and Fairness Rising, the directors received hard drives of footage that they could review at a public library. There they made notes for Bello in a Google Drive spreadsheet, explaining how they wanted the scenes to be edited.

Levester Green’s eponymous film was “very much to his road map,” Bello says—and you can tell by how personal it is. For much of the film, Green is in a hotel room recounting how he got there, from his promising start in poetry and rap to the series of setbacks—jail, unemployment—that landed him homeless in 2007. The documentary centers on this self-interrogation, affirming Green’s agency in constructing his own narrative. As Green wonders aloud whether to discuss his stalled career, Bello says off screen: “It’s your film so you’ll have to decide if you want to put it in or not.” But, Green says, “it’s a lot of loose ends. It’s going to take more than 20 minutes to address it.” The whole meta-dialogue ended up making the cut.

(Sara Nelson)

It’s moments like these—uncertain, unrehearsed—that reveal the seams of these amateur productions. Sometimes the camerawork is shaky (and not by design), the dialogue swallowed up by ambient noise. These films, in their unvarnished intimacy, get almost too close for comfort, departing from the remote, academic air of the typical talking-head doc.

What Levester Joe Green and Late Show merely allude to—the political underpinnings of homelessness—Fairness Rising tackles head-on. The film revolves around two advocacy events headed by the People for Fairness Coalition: a public forum with D.C. mayoral candidates on housing instability in the District, and a December 2014 vigil for homeless people who died on the streets.

But in Fairness Rising, as in Levester Joe Green, the most compelling moments come in the course of a conversation—this time in a downtown D.C. McDonald’s, where the employees’ discomfort around homeless customers is palpable. Reggie Black, a homeless advocate, asks a woman working there, “What if in that hour you put [a homeless woman] out, she freezed to death?” The employee’s response, “McDonald’s cannot be their home,” is true enough in its simplicity. But the confrontation speaks to a larger social failure, and a city’s unwillingness to face the people it has consigned to the streets.

Even so, homelessness doesn’t define the people in these films. It’s incidental to who they are and who they hope to become—a temporary condition that can be changed with enough political will. And wherever these men and women lay their heads, they’ve all seen, through the program, what holding a camera can do.

“A lot of times media is the outside, and they really don’t understand,” says Reggie Black. “People walk into places with their own preconceived concept. This particular form has to continue. I think that’s the only way to change mainstream media. They have to see something different to do something different.”

Brian Carome says Street Sense has been talking to content distributors, including HBO, Comcast, and AOL, to share the films with a wider audience. In the meantime, the co-op is hard at work on its next set of films, all directed by women. At the recent Street Sense premiere screening, one of these filmmakers offered a preview of the all-female slate.

“My particular movie is about my experience on the street as a woman, and the type of experiences that women go through,” she said. “It’s not gonna be pretty. It’s gonna be real.”

You can watch all of the films now on Vimeo: Fairness Rising, I Am Levester Joe Green II, and Late Show. The female directors’ films will premiere on August 26, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Buy your tickets here.

CORRECTION: This post corrects the credits on the photographs above. They are by Sara Nelson, not Bryan Bello.

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