New York-based filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly spent lots of time in Chicago over the course of more than four years to shoot their new documentary The Homestretch, a co-production of Chicago’s Kartemquin Films that explores the growing problem of youth homelessness via the lives of several public school students. Shortly before a private screening Sept. 8 at the Spertus Institute and a public premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting Sept. 12, the women spoke about their project.
Question: Was making this film more about the creative process or pushing an issue forward?
Anne de Mare: I think it’s both, in a sense. The impulse to make the film was that the stories really moved us. And as we kind of moved further into the issue and met more and more young people and we found our lead characters for the film and the people we really wanted to spend time with, it was their personal stories that really affected us. And then as we have moved through the process of making the film, I think the social impact piece of it has become stronger and stronger.
Kirsten Kelly: We’re both storytellers, and I think first and foremost we’re always looking at how to dive into something that we believe passionately about, that we feel can be a film in the best sense of the craft, in the best sense of the creativity of it. So as we were going in and started spending huge amounts of time in the world of these kids and just trying to understand their points of view and their perspective on things, we kept anchoring ourselves in “how do we tell this story visually, filmically.” So that was really our strong base. One of the interesting things we started to discover right away within everybody’s story was this kind of juxtaposition between severe isolation of what they were going through and this kind of tremendous search for community. That’s why kids were clinging onto school, that’s why they were clinging onto the Crib. And that’s why they had a cell phone or would do anything to keep that cell phone, because it kept them in touch with some sense of somebody and community.
Q: How did you avoid becoming too involved with your subjects?
Anne: We went down the road of filming and working with about a dozen young people before the stories of Kasey, Anthony and Roque [pronounced Rocky] came to the forefront. First and foremost, everyone is a human being, and when a young person is hungry or is unsafe and needs a ride, you come to it as a human being before you come to it as a filmmaker. But we really wanted to work with young people for whom the telling of their story was empowering, for whom the telling of their story was a good thing for them and who really wanted to be involved in the film. And we never wanted our relationship with the subjects to be at all transactional. And so it was a really organic process of discovering what those relationships were.
Q: At what point did you introduce the camera? Was there a lot of just hanging out beforehand?
Kirsten: That’s an interesting question. One of the things that we decided from the get-go, once we started doing research, is we wanted to take a tremendous amount of time with the making of this film. And it’s kind of one of the reasons that the MacArthur Foundation came on board [with funding] and Sundance came on board, because we were committed to the long haul. Like, what happens in the journies of these kids over years? The camera happened in a different way with each young person. Sometimes we would hang out for a while with them and kind of tell them about the project. [With] Anthony, we just happened to find him and he wanted to talk, and so the camera was on from the get-go and he gave probably the most amazing interview the very first time we ever met him. One of the surprises of this process was so many of the kids that we worked with, because of their youth and because of not wanting to be judged or not wanted to be stereotyped as being this negative runaway kid under the bridge, they kept their homelessness [silent]. So many of them were isolated that they didn’t think there were all these other people going through it.
Q: Why hasn’t the issue of youth homelessness gotten more attention?
Anne: I think that homelessness in general is an issue that people don’t really want to talk about. And from a cultural standpoint, the federal legislation around this issue is a bill that’s been around for 40 years, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, and all of the funding that goes towards homeless youth comes from this one bill. It’s not a quote-unquote sexy issue, but I think that we’re hitting such crisis proportions in the schools that it is at the point where we really need to pay attention to the fact that more and more young people are ending up on their own way too early without a place to be. And I hope that our film gets to be an extremely high-profile piece of work on this and that [the issue] does get the kind of attention that it needs. The thing I will say about youth homelessness that has become so apparent to me in working on the film over the years is that there is so much potential in this population and this is the crisis moment. Adolescence is such a pivotal time for everybody. Your brain is changing. It is this moment where your brain changes more than when you were a toddler. You are forming how you’re going to launch as an independent person in the world. And these young people, if they stay in situations of trauma and abuse and danger and the stress of being homeless — the longer they’re homeless, the longer they’re on the street, the longer they’re in this condition, the closer we come to losing them as a society. So it’s just so important that we invest in these young people at this point in time.