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Frontline the Begging Game

From the lifestyles and the words of New York City panhandlers -- by turns tragic, joyous, fraudulent and deeply moving -- filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have created a compelling montage of life in the lower depths. Correspondent Deborah Amos follows the lives of a small group of people as they slog through their day-to-day existence, past small joys and crushing hardships, as a New York winter closes in.

From the lifestyles and the words of New York City panhandlers — by turns tragic, joyous, fraudulent and deeply moving — filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have created a compelling montage of life in the lower depths. Correspondent Deborah Amos follows the lives of a small group of people as they slog through their day-to-day existence, past small joys and crushing hardships, as a New York winter closes in.

Most outspoken is 72-year-old Theresa, who writes poetry and serves as self-appointed den mother to a few of her pals, who sleep in packing boxes set up nightly in the front entrance of an office building.

Theresa’s pal is Shirley, and the two pool their take to spend Thanksgiving in a hotel room, “where they don’t ask you to check out until 4 o’clock.”

Dana is younger — when she began panhandling she told people she needed help for her baby; when that didn’t work she switched her story to that of a mother on dialysis. True? Amos finds no hospital records to support her claim.

“Most panhandlers work hard at their storytelling,” says Amos, and Task Force Sergeant William Hardwicke corroborates. “They like to utilize the sympathy modes,” he notes.

Depressing as are the patterns of existence captured by Robert Richman’s cameras, a certain glow illuminates these stories, skillfully interwoven into a tough and durable fabric. Down on their luck they might be, but there is also a hilarious radiance as Theresa and Shirley bed down in their fleabag hotel room that might as well be the Plaza’s best.

Like skilled craftsmen in any field, the gamesters in “The Begging Game” live for the satisfaction of a job well done.

Frontline the Begging Game

(Tues. (21) 9-10 p.m., KCET)

Production: Filmed in New York by a consortium of by public television stations: WGBH Boston, WTVS Detroit, WPBT Miami, WNET New York, KCTS Seattle. Executive producer, David Fanning; producer/directors, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky.

Crew: Editor, Dana Heinz Perry; camera, Robert Richman. Correspondent/narrator, Deborah Amos.

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