Made over a period of six years, “The Street: A Film With the Homeless” closely follows the occasional ups and all-too-frequent downs in the lives of three homeless men in Montreal. First-time director Daniel Cross makes no attempt to hide his sympathy for the characters he’s portraying, and, in spite of low-tech production values, pic has a raw, visceral force that draws in the viewer; the main characters, a desperate group, are never less than riveting.
The grainy, gritty look of the 16mm filming will make this a tough sell, and some TV programmers looking for more journalistic distance may be troubled by the friendships Cross develops with his subjects over the course of the film. But it is a remarkably intimate portrait of what it is like to attempt to survive out on the streets, and the affecting story of how these three men’s lives fell apart makes this a natural for pubcasters and other educational tube slots.
Growing out of Cross’ fascination with the hobos panhandling just outside the Guy subway station in the heart of downtown Montreal, pic was begun in 1990. Two of the main figures in docu are the Claven brothers. At the outset, John Claven is being evicted from his apartment and decides to live on the street for a couple of months until he pulls his life back together. His brother Danny, who is 25, has been living on the street since the age of 11 and is addicted to booze and a wide array of drugs.
Danny is prone to wild mood swings, and, when he’s in his gentle, laid-back phase, he can be quite a charismatic fellow. But he’s just as likely to be shown beating up guys at the subway station and generally making as much trouble as possible. He spends a lot of time working with stray dogs at an animal protection center in rural Quebec, but he eventually has a falling out with the people who run the place.
The other member of the Guy Street gang is Frank O’Malley, known as the “King of the Hobos.” A rather dapper street person, this Irish-born alcoholic in his mid-50s considers himself to be a “classy bum” who’d rather stay in a rooming house for some privacy if he could. But he hits the bottle just as hard as the Clavens, and, because he’s diabetic, the physical effects of the drinking and street living are even more disastrous for him. After his gangrenous left leg is amputated (halfway through the pic), he looks to be straightening himself out. But as soon as he hooks up with his buddies out on the street, he goes back to the booze.
By befriending the Claven brothers and O’Malley, Cross gets them to open up in interviews much more than they likely would have in a more conventional docu, and they often let him continue to shoot at the most personal moments. Cross’ ultra-personal approach is what sets his film apart from other docus on homeless people, and it’s near-impossible not to sympathize with these guys’ wrenching struggles.
It is the complex, sometimes funny, often maddening personalities at thecenter of this real-life drama that hook the viewer. Their imploding lives aren’t pretty, but they make for an absorbing piece of sociological filmmaking.
Tech credits are unabashedly low-fi, though pic does feature a nice, bluesy soundtrack built around the accomplished guitar work of Canadian rocker Jimmy James.