With the Florida Film Festival opening April 10th, we have selected a handful of filmmakers to showcase and discuss their films.
By Jacob Engels
Tell me a little about yourself and where you got the idea for Homeless.
I grew up in southern Indiana, did my undergrad in Kentucky, then went to film school at Florida State. I was elated when I got into the program. Film school was definitely a challenge and the faculty pushed us hard. Only 19 of the 24 in my class got through and graduated, which was an anomaly for the program, but it goes to show what kind of commitment it takes to make it in this industry and hone your craft. On the first day, the Dean of the film school, Frank Patterson, said to my class, “You have a responsibility to succeed.” I’ll never forget that. That was our challenge, and that’s why I loved my time at FSU and why I think I could muster up the grit and determination to push through and make my first feature with limited means and resources. HOMELESS is based on a true story about a dear friend of mine. He asked me to help him write a memoir about the time he spent in the shelter, and I approached him about making a movie instead, and so we did.
What was it like logistically?
We cast all non-actors and filmed in a real homeless shelter with actual homeless people. I think it was certainly a risk, and I was a little nervous about it at first, but everything just clicked. We had an extraordinary amount of heart and talent on set and the shelter was so accommodating and hospitable. We had to integrate the blocking within and and among the ongoings of the shelter while it was working at full capacity during the cold winter months. All of that worked to our advantage and it brought a very true sense of realism to our film.
Based on what you saw, are people willing to help someone who is trying to get back on their feet? What obstacles do the homeless face?
I think the general public would be surprised at the people who volunteer at the shelter. It’s everyone, from church congregates to corporate executives to the son of a former President of the United States. I’ve seen and experienced real community inside a shelter that I deeply wish were present across our society. Serving food, eating together, playing a game of cards or chess, cheering on a sports team, bumming a cigarette… it’s real camaraderie, what should be the brotherhood of man. The homeless face many obstacles. I think the biggest one is that once you’re in the system, it’s exponentially hard to get out. You can easily end up on the streets by losing your job and not being able to make that next rent payment and having no one around to help you. That kind of unfortunate circumstance can throw you into a cycle of poverty and homelessness, making it harder and harder to land back on your foot. When you’re homeless, you don’t have a physical address, so it makes it awkward applying for jobs. You’re out on the streets for most of the day, and if you’re dealing with addiction of any kind, those temptations become harder to avoid. Think about public spaces. You see a lot of homeless people congregating indoors at bus stations, churches, soup kitchens, public libraries… Your world becomes suddenly very limited and somehow you have to get through life that way, even if it’s temporary.
What did you and crew take away from this film. Did it change your outlook at all?
Filming in and among real homeless people had a profound impact on all of us I think. When you start talking with a person and get to know them, you see them differently. They are people. People with real lives, real families, real stories. Just like you. It’s important I think to look past the stigma and into the real person.
Biggest hurdle you faced?
Post-production. The biggest hurdle was cutting the film down and preparing it for exhibition. We had to make a lot of hard decisions in the editing room. Some major story lines got cut. It’s a challenge for any filmmaker to be objective about his or her own work, and so to navigate through each thorough edit, decide what’s working and what’s not working, connecting story lines even though a huge chunk of one or two gets removed, I think that was the most difficult challenge.
What makes Homeless a must see?
I think this is a very accurate depiction of homelessness as told through one story. There are hundreds of thousands of them. We tried not to dramatize the events, but let it play out as it would in real life. I think audiences will be impressed with how we integrated ourselves seamlessly into the daily activities of the shelter. Those big scenes in the dining room, upstairs sleeping quarter, and hospitality room — that was happening in real time. We didn’t stage it. We had to work like documentary filmmakers to get the job done.
Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post & Seminole County Post. He is a seasoned political operative who has led numerous statewide political groups and has worked on several high-profile local, statewide, and national races. Jacob has been interviewed on national television & radio programs, with his work having been featured in the Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and other publications nationwide. He can be reached at email@example.com