Film project puts true stories of street life in the mouths of actors

· The Pulse

A new short film titled This is Where We Live uses verbatim theatre to let Edmonton's unhoused community tell their own stories.

The film, directed by Dave Horak of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and produced by Eric Rice with Ground Zero Productions, will be screened for the first time on Nov. 22 at Metro Cinema, marking the National Housing Day of Action.

It is the final product of a years-long process that started with interviewing eight people who were homeless or had experienced homelessness. Those interviews became the script performed by professional actors, who were hired to match the age, gender, and ethnicity of the interviewees.

Although his intent was to document lived experiences, Rice felt that shooting the film as a documentary would have worked against the aim of the project. So he chose an unobtrusive interview practice to put the film's subjects at ease.

"We wanted to give them freedom to tell their stories in a very natural and unforced way," he said. "Getting a camera stuck in your face and having somebody setting up lights around you, that doesn't really promote a feeling of comfort and trust and safety."

Having the interviews performed by professional actors in a controlled environment is meant to make it easier for audiences to truly hear what is being said, "without having the people listening filter their stories based on how people look," Rice said, noting that it's hard to come across as polished without access to showers or clean clothes.

The idea for This is Where We Live grew out of Rice's previous work and the shortcomings of past creative approaches to depicting homelessness. In his play Starless, Rice wrote a character based on his experiences volunteering with Alberta Street News and interviewing the often marginalized people who sold the paper.

"I realized after doing that, I wasn't really telling their story," Rice said. "I was taking pieces of their story, and using them to create a dramatic product."

Stills of three actors from This is Where We Live

Chris Bullough, Darlene Auger, and Tatiana Duque perform the stories of Gary Nesterchuk, pihpihciw (Robin), and Zonia Maria Callejas in the new short film This is Where We Live. (Supplied)

Rice hopes the verbatim theatre approach and the care taken in the production of This is Where We Live will amplify the voices of people who we have largely been conditioned to ignore. The next step is to support policies that meaningfully address the problem.

"People want Edmonton to be a great place to live, but it can't really be a great place to live for anybody unless it's an adequate place to live for everybody," Rice said.

Data compiled by Homeward Trust indicates as of Nov. 7 that 2,656 people were experiencing homelessness in Edmonton. That's 262 more than the number reported in November 2021.

"Without ongoing and fairly substantive investments in affordable and adequate housing, by all levels of government, the situation will never get better," Rice said. "We can put money into emergency shelters, but those should be for emergencies. That shouldn't be a norm of Edmonton life."

The film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Nadine Chalifoux, chairperson of the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness; former mayor Don Iveson, who is now co-chair of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness; and Cam McDonald, executive director of the Right at Home Housing Society.

November is Edmonton Housing Month, and a number of events and presentations have been organized by participating agencies.