Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The question everyone asks

I suppose I didn't make it clear at the end of the previous installment, but I was convinced at the time that this guy never wanted a food, he wanted money to buy drugs, and the reason that he intentionally took a long time making up his mind about what to put on his sandwich in the hopes that I would just give up and hand him a dollar. So I wasn't discouraged because he wasted a sandwich (though that bothered me to) but because it torpedoed my entire strategy of insuring that I would only be helping truly needy people and not drug addicts. It was many years before I realized that the problem was not with the world, but with the premise: "truly needy" and "drug addicts" are not disjoint groups. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The question everyone asks, and which I have always had the devil of a time answering, is: why did you make this movie? Of course there are a lot of reasons. I wanted to learn how films were made. I thought it would be cool. I wanted to win the Oscar. But OK, those are reasons to make a film in general, why homelessness? I think it actually goes back to that day at the Subway. From that day on the question gnawed at me: if buying them sandwiches doesn't work, then what will? I'm an engineer by both training and temperament, and at the core of the engineer's soul is the conviction that every problem has a solution. Here was a problem writ large and small: in the heart of Hollywood, the most glamorous city in the richest country on earth, you can't walk down the street without being overwhelmed by the stench of stale urine and the never ending refrain, "Got any spare change?"

A friend of mine just sent me this comment on my previous post: "[Y]ou lost your faith in humanity because an addict was addicted and trying to feed his habit rather than his nutritional needs?" Well, yeah, pretty much, though of course I didn't see it that way at the time. At the time I didn't understand addiction. I had been raised by tea-totaling parents to believe that taking drugs was a moral failure, and so by extension enabling someone to take drugs was a moral failure too. In retrospect I can see what a colossal mistake this is (I'll have a lot more to say about that in later posts). But at the time I just accepted it as an axiom, and I think a lot of people still do: helping someone buy drugs is a Bad Thing To Do (tm). Given how destructive addiction can be it's not a completely unreasonable point of view.

I remained impaled on the horns of this dilemma for over ten years. During that time the idea of trying to learn more about homelessness by making a documentary crossed my mind a number of times. It's a natural thing to contemplate when you're in LA because everyone and their second cousin is making a movie. (I would sometimes joke that the reason I made the film is that if you stay in LA too long without making a movie they will kick you out.) But I never did anything about it, in part because in those days making a movie was still pretty hard. People were starting to make films with video cameras, but the quality was poor, and besides I had other fish to fry. I was working on my first startup while trying to keep a day job. My personal life was in turmoil and would ultimately result in a divorce. But that's not what this story is about.

So fast forward to 2006. The Google IPO has just happened and suddenly I am financially independent. I have quit my job at JPL. I have time. I have resources. And I have an apartment in Santa Monica, which is chock-full of homeless people (Santa Monica, not the apartment). There is nothing standing in my way of tackling this project.

It seems that you sometimes don't really get to know yourself until all the external obstacles have been cleared away and you have nothing left to blame your failures on. In my case I suddenly realized that it wasn't time or money that was really standing in my way, it was fear. I started looking at the bums and the panhandlers and realized that the prospect of approaching them was absolutely terrifying. How do you do it? Can you just walk up to a homeless person and say, "Excuse me, can you please tell me how you ended up on the street?" The question itself seemed inescapably judgmental. I mean, you wouldn't walk up to a homeful person and say, "Excuse me, can you please tell me how you ended up in your house?"

So I was stuck again.

My rescue came from a most unexpected quarter: my dog. Tune in next time for that story.

No comments:

Post a Comment