Richard Cohen feels a special compassion for the underdog. When asked about the roots of his sympathy for the beleaguered subjects of his documentary films, he points back to his childhood. He tells of having endured a year of paralysis from polio at age six, and he recalls a disturbing boyhood moment: watching two janitors at his public school scramble to the floor for pennies kids had thrown them. “They were like mongrels,” he says. “It was horrifying to see such cruelty.”
Cohen’s compassion for the powerless in their quest to reclaim their dignity has fueled his films on the abusive treatment of mental patients (Hurry Tomorrow, 1975, and 41 Days, a work-in-progress) and the use of excessive force by police (Deadly Force, 1980). Four years ago Cohen decided to turn his camera on his own troubled neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. The film that resulted, Taylor’s Campaign, is an intimate, wrenching and delicately humorous glimpse into the lives of homeless people.
Santa Monica is a seaside city known for its balmy weather, sky-bleeding sunsets, palm-studded beaches and fractious political debates. Dubbed by local wags “the People’s Republic of Santa Monica,” the city’s liberal biases have been challenged in recent years by the presence of an increasingly visible homeless population. The fear that the city might be “spreading” homelessness by offering aid to its victims has seeped into the public mind. Taylor’s Campaign features a recording of a radio call-in show on which a speaker says that homeless people should be put to sleep. “They’re a burden...a waste of space...a waste of human life.” It was to combat such growing prejudice that Ron Taylor, a former truck driver who himself became homeless in Santa Monica, ran for the Santa Monica City Council. Speaking from personal experience, Taylor became an advocate for the homeless in the face of restrictive public ordinances and police harrassment.
It was Richard Cohen’s involvement with Just Us, a volunteer-run feeding program, that led him to Ron Taylor. The program was started by a group of psychiatric nurses who took it upon themselves to provide breakfast for the city’s homeless. Cohen recalls that these nurses often stayed up after a late shift, boiling 150 eggs and sorting fruit in order to feed the homeless the next morning. Just Us is one of the feeding programs that Santa Monica’s politicians lobby to end in Taylor’s Campaign. Cohen shows an eloquent homeless man telling the Santa Monica City Council that the only reason he, a man with a college degree, is standing before them is because the feeding programs kept him alive.
Cohen, 49, had to work hard to earn the trust of the homeless people he interviewed for Taylor’s Campaign. Luckily, he found that while many people become nervous in front of a camera, the homeless seem more willing to talk when a camera is present. “The camera makes them feel like somebody cares. It’s a question of mutual respect,” Cohen says. “I always try to be part of the situation. I take some time and talk to them. You can’t spend enough time with them.”
Cohen and his cinematographers, Baird Bryant and Gil Kofman, tried to get to the homeless encampment in Santa Monica as early in the morning as possible and stay as late as they could. They often worked 12-hour days during their six-week shoot in 1994. “Sometimes we’d end up just watching the dirt. Hanging out. That’s when my cinematographers would fall asleep. But you just have to hang in there,” he says “because you never know when the next moment is coming.”
The 75-minute Beta SP documentary, which Cohen directed, co-produced and edited, was Kofman’s first experience as a cinematographer; prior to the film, he had worked as a playwright and photographer in Los Angeles. Baird Bryant is a pioneer of modern documentary technique and has worked on several of Cohen’s other films, including Deadly Force, Rough Side of the Mountain (a work-in-progress about Clay Shaw’s involvement with Lee Harvey Oswald) and 41 Days. “Baird is like the wind,” says Cohen. “I always feel like he’s one with the camera.”
When asked if it’s difficult to rely on somebody else to shoot his films, Cohen says he just constantly watches the lens to see where it’s moving. “It’s more advantageous to stand back and see the images outside the view of the cinematographer,” he says. On occasions, he’ll lean into the cinematographer and make a suggestion. “We work out signals and communicate while the camera’s going.” For one sequence, Cohen said he suggested that Kofman get a shot of a homeless man’s feet, which were split, cracked and studded with plantars warts from walking his daily rounds in search of recyclable cans. That shot became one of the most striking images in Taylor’s Campaign.
Contrary to some stereotypes of street people, the homeless in Taylor’s Campaign are both articulate and witty. “We didn’t know they were so charismatic when we first drove up,” Cohen recalls. “They looked like everybody else. Anonymous images. Ragtags in cardboard shanties.” While one might question whether the homeless were playing to the camera, since they live in the heart of the film industry and are just as star-savvy as anybody else, Cohen says that was not an issue. “They were not media-hounds. Their awareness of the camera was not a problem. We tried to look for as much honesty as we could.” Cohen is resistant to catering to commercial, formulaic approaches to documentaries. “You don’t have to serve up a McDonald’s burger to make it interesting, contrary to what the industry believes. You just have to get the truth of the moment.”
The brash honesty of Taylor’s Campaign infuses the tragedy of homelessness with both humor and empathy. In one scene, a homeless man has so much fun telling his story about falling into a dumpster and falling asleep that he seems to forget about the camera. In another scene, two women who have set up a make-shift outdoor bedroom and are sweeping the surrounding grounds are drawn into a confrontation with the local police, who tell them to move their camp. When they don’t, the police issue a citation and call in help to remove their mattresses and meager belongings. The film pulls viewers into the situation of the homeless, making us feel what it’s like to be second-class citizens. “The camera makes it safe for us to enter this world without shame or fear,” Cohen says.
Statistics cited in Taylor’s Campaign indicate that homeless shelters in Los Angeles County have approximately 13,000 beds for 90,000 homeless people. Most shelters have strict curfews, and some impose religious practices that some homeless people reject. Some, like the subjects of Taylor’s Campaign, feel they have no choice but to try to survive on their own and hope somebody will give them a hand.
Martin Sheen, the narrator of Taylor’s Campaign, is a dedicated activist who feeds the homeless in Venice (a community adjacent to Santa Monica) once a week. He often appears at demonstrations against the ban on public feeding, and it was at one such demonstration that Cohen spotted him and asked him to narrate his documentary, 41 Days. When the film wasn’t completed, Cohen asked him to narrate Taylor’s Campaign instead. Sheen agreed, got permission from his agents, arranged a recording session at Indigo Ranch Recording in Malibu and donated his time and talent to the project.
Other assistance for Taylor’s Campaign included a grant from Marcia and Robin Williams’s Windfall Foundation and fiscal sponsorship by Film Arts Foundation. FAF’s executive director, Gail Silva, fortified Cohen’s project with her encouragement and enthusiasm. “She’s like a pillar of strength for independent films,” Cohen says. “She deserves a lot for her devotion. She’s a real believer.”
Cohen says he has never had a completed budget for a project prior to filming. “Just go ahead and make the film,” is his philosophy. “Going into debt is quite frequent for me. I’ve learned to accept that.” While fundraising may appear to be the hardest part of filmmaking, Cohen says that distribution is the real struggle. He has been self-distributing Taylor’s Campaign, which premiered at the Denver Film Festival in October, 1997. Cohen brought Ron Taylor with him to the Denver festival, but they arrived in a huge snow storm, which contributed to a bleak turnout for opening night. But Cohen says the festival was still a good experience, because it allowed him to screen the film at the St. Francis homeless shelter in Denver. “Most everyone stayed to hear Ron speak,” he says. “It was really hard for him to watch the film, because he wants things to change for the homeless.”
Cohen says the best response so far came after he screened Taylor’s Campaign to a group of skid row dwellers in Los Angeles. “One man came up to me and said it was a very accurate, enlightening portrayal. That was the best screening. People really understood the humor of the film.” He says he has also had success targeting academic audiences. The Harvard Film Archives (which Cohen learned about through FAF’s AEIOU exhibition directory)screened the film in June.
In addition to submitting his documentary to festivals and academic circles, Cohen is using the Internet to get the word out. He has built a mailing list and he sends press releases to relevant discussion groups. He has also set up neighborhood screenings using churches, synagogues and even his own living room, which he has named “the 11th Street Salon.”
Cohen is well aware of the importance of getting his work covered by the mainstream press. He called the L.A. Times and asked its film reviewer, Kevin Thomas, to write about Taylor’s Campaign. When Thomas reviewed it favorably, Cohen invited him to an 11th Street screening, which spurred another positive review. Eventually, Taylor’s Campaign got capsule reviews in the Times every week for two and a half months. Cohen successfully took the same approach with the New York Times.
Cohen can trace his persistent, bare-bones approach to distribution to another childhood experience. He recalls seeing D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back, at the John Hancock Museum in Boston when he was a youth. Pennebaker was present at the screening, setting up folding chairs for the audience—an image that Cohen remembers well. “You have to do it any way you can,” he says. “Just keep doing it. Keep following your heart.” As a documentary filmmaker, Cohen shares a common instinct with many of the subjects of his films. It is the instinct to survive.
Screenwriter and journalist Holly Payne recently finished a script called
“Tony C” for Gryphon Entertainment of Boston and has written and
co-produced a 20-minute film called Graven Image.