Films tell stories at twenty-four frames a second, or in spooling pixels, and some of the best take us inside the lives of people we would otherwise never meet. I often felt when I was making documentary films that I crossed an unmarked but very real border between one country and another, from the country of those of us who don’t worry about where our next meal is coming from, to the country within our country where food and shelter and safety are daily concerns and loss is at the center of every story.
One-fifth of American children live in poverty, a statistic that despite brief dips and rises has held steady for the last 50 years. Its predictable wreckage marks children early. I saw many young children in the neighborhoods in which I filmed already convinced of their unworthiness. They understood exactly where they stood in society. And they blamed themselves. By adolescence, many had come to believe they deserved their fate; that is, they had surrendered to a future someone else had imagined for them.
The first film I made was No Place Like Home, in 1993, a film about a homeless mother, Lori Wilson, and her three children. When I met them, Lori and her kids lived in one of the low-slung, by-the-week motels strung along Aurora. In those years the motels served as overflow shelters for homeless families in Seattle.
Before meeting Lori, I had spent three months visiting the motels, looking for a family with a compelling story to tell, essentially casting my film. Almost everyone I met in those motel rooms — rooms that smelled of mildew and ripe diapers, in which the blinds were inevitably drawn and the TV was on — had a story. Almost all of those stories began and ended in some poor neighborhood. In Yakima, in Boise, in Sacramento. In towns and cities all across the West.
I would drive from my apartment in leafy Madrona, down Denny Way, and north along Aurora Avenue to sit on the corner of an unmade bed and listen. It was probably not the smartest thing to do, to go alone, at night, in search of stories among people who may, or may not, have been using illegal substances in a vain attempt, it seems to me now, to cure whatever pain or terrifying mess they were in. The African American woman who’d been beaten by her boyfriend. The tow-headed boy about to be lost to — or saved by — foster care. The pregnant young white woman, with two toddlers. They were men and women with unique stories to tell and cogent, and often tragic, insight into their predicament.
My interlocutors treated me like a visitor from another world, which I was; like a mildly welcome distraction; and with the recognition, I felt, that I was free in a way they were not. I had, after all, a full tank of gas in my funky old Datsun.
The lives of those I talked to — white, Black, Hispanic — were tangled up with three social institutions that rarely touch the lucky rest of us: foster care, criminal justice (courts and prisons), and what we used to call welfare and are now supposed to call something else, but mostly still think of as welfare. These institutions are raw, inescapable realities for the poor. The mostly well-meaning workers in those places could humiliate and deny their clients resources by simply following protocols, or fail to keep their children safe or, at worst, tear families and loved ones apart, however necessary that might appear to others. However necessary that was. The people I talked to spoke of their encounters with these harsh facts of life in tones of indignation, derision, resignation.
Ronald Reagan’s election in 1981 began the dismantling of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the programs that sought, in the 1960s, to shore up the resources for and prospects of the elderly, the poor, the most disadvantaged among us. A New Morning dawned in my country in the 1980s and it meant that food banks like the one I coordinated in Spokane were doing a booming business as state mental hospitals were emptied out and people at the margins slid closer to destitution.
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