Subjects of Oscar-nominated documentary about homelessness invited to ceremony

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Ronnie "Futuristic Astaire" Willis in Lead Me Home.
Ronnie "Futuristic Astaire" Willis in Lead Me Home.
Photo: Netflix
  • The directors of the Oscar-nominated short documentary Lead Me Home hopes to bring two or three of its subjects to the ceremony.
  • The film follows a dozen or so homeless and vulnerable people in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle over three years.
  • The ceremony for the 94th Academy Awards hosted by Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall will be held on 27 March.

Once a year, Hollywood hosts the Oscars - but every night, hundreds of homeless people sleep on and around the Los Angeles neighbourhood's star-lined streets.

Those two starkly contrasting worlds are set to collide next month when the directors of Lead Me Home, a nominated film on the United States' homeless crisis, plan to invite their subjects onto the Oscars' red carpet as their guests.

"Hopefully, on the day of the ceremony, we can shine a little bit of a light on that juxtaposition and raise awareness of the humanity that's right across the street, literally, and that we've all been ignoring for too long," said Pedro Kos, co-director of the short documentary.

"We have our fingers crossed that we can bring two or three of them with us" to the 27 March ceremony, his fellow director Jon Shenk told AFP.

The film, available on Netflix, follows a dozen or so homeless and vulnerable people in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle over the course of three years.

It presents in intimate detail their daily routines and struggles on the streets and their hopes and dreams for escaping them.

Seen as less than human

Subjects include Luis Rivera Miranda, a middle-aged dog-owner who strikes up a romance with a fellow homeless woman, and Ronnie "Futuristic Astaire" Willis, who dances for tourists on Hollywood Boulevard to afford food.

"He has an extraordinary story - someone who is a classically trained dancer, who has danced with Janet Jackson, who choreographed Sisqo's Thong Song, who fell on hard times, unfortunately, due to many different factors," said Kos.

In Willis's scenes, "you actually see the side of the Dolby Theater" where the Oscars are held, he added.

According to the filmmakers, a major problem is that so many people view their unhoused neighbours in a dehumanising way and convince themselves that the homeless must be to blame for their own plight.

But asked how they became homeless, the film's subjects list diverse factors such as disability, rejection by family members after coming out as transgender, and even depression triggered by the 9/11 attacks.

"I think it comes from our own fear of falling through the cracks," said Shenk.

"And so we're hoping that the film can in some ways provide a new perspective that personalises this, breaks it down, says, 'Hey, wait a minute, let's remember who we're talking about - these are Americans, they're our neighbours, they have rights, they are people.'"

'Crisis of humanity' 

The directors gained access and earned their subjects' trust by working with a number of homeless support organisations.

Rather than interviewing them directly, Shenk set up his camera at shelters where the homeless underwent "vulnerability assessment" interviews, leaving the room so that they could discuss their situations more freely.

But one of the film's more harrowing moments comes as a homeless woman tells a social worker at a makeshift camp that she has been beaten again by a man called Mike, prompting the social worker to call a shelter to help her escape.

"For women, the sexual violence is really real," said Shenk. "I can't think of a woman that we met that didn't have some story related to that."

Shenk and Kos do not have a grand solution to a problem that plagues every elected leader in the West Coast cities - and other US cities - but said that simplifying the vast bureaucracy of programs available to the homeless would be a start.

Los Angeles is currently conducting its first homeless count in two years. The last census was scrapped due to Covid-19.

The film notes that moratoriums on evictions brought in due to the pandemic are about to expire, potentially worsening the crisis.

"There's no question in our minds that there is a giant crisis of humanity going on in America," said Shenk.

"We hope to use this tiny little moment that is shining on our tiny little film to have an open conversation that allows people to see perhaps a perspective they haven't been exposed to on this issue."

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