Despite all the negative press recently surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, it is still hard to argue the mission behind the former talk show host’s cable network. Audiences flocked to her show for 25 years for a variety of reasons, but at the heart of it was the platform she provided to help viewers, simply put, see their true potential, to be and live their best.
Presumably, that is why the folks at OWN latched onto Steven Cantor’s documentary about a homeless community in Nashville, Tennessee, Tent City U.S.A. Premiering Thursday, April 5th (9p ET/PT), the movie is the latest addition to one of the network’s real gems, the OWN Documentary Club. Shot over the course of six months in 2010, Cantor and his four-person crew spent around 20 days shooting some 40 hours of footage of the nearly 100 homeless people – just a fraction of Nashville’s 6,000 homeless – who set up Tent City under a downtown bridge.
What’s surprising about the documentary and the people Cantor captures is their resilient spirit. Some of the residents are actually there by choice, like Stacey (pictured center at right) who left a bad marriage and 3-bedroom home to start over. Wendell has lived in Tent City for six years after losing his business and home following a DUI. Tee Tee (pictured right in yellow) almost died a few years prior to joining Tent City, malnourished and incredibly sick.
No matter their circumstance – some victims of the economy, others of their own devices – there embody a faith and simplicity that are almost hard to define, astonishing given their often dire circumstances, including the massive May 2010 flood that rocked Nashville. Keep in mind, they all lived under a bridge.
At first glance, it is easy to assume that Tent City U.S.A. is a depressing examination of homelessness, a glimpse into the lives of drug addicts or alcoholics or abused runaways. It’s anything but.
In my interview with Cantor, he addresses his own expectations of the residents as he went into the shoot, explains why Nashville became the city of focus, and reveals how the flood completely changed the direction of the documentary.
• THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES •
Why Nashville? What inherently stood out about this tent city and not one of the many others across the country?
STEVEN CANTOR: The one in Nashville stood out to us because of how organized and communal the inhabitants seemed. Also, there was pressure from government agencies to relocate, because they claimed it was in a flood zone, which of course none of the homeless believed.
And which we hear from at least one resident. The timing of his statement is startling because, as a viewer, I know it’s April 2010 and the flood is just a month away. Of course you nor any of the Tent City residents, just feet from the banks of the river, know what’s going to happen. If this was a narrative feature, the flood is exactly something the screenwriter would’ve written into the script…the turning point for the story. Was there ever a moment when you thought this was going to mean the end of your journey with the residents? Or did you know – if so, how quickly did you realize it – that this was going to be the shift for them?
CANTOR: The flood was one of those impossible to believe documentary moments. The municipal government was trying to move Tent City because they said it was in a potential flood zone. But it had not flooded in a hundred years, so the homeless community in Nashville, most of whom were congregated in Tent City, were…utterly convinced that it was just a ploy by the government to displace and disperse them. And frankly, we completely bought into that line of thinking and sympathized with the homeless community, and that was the story we thought we would tell. Then all of a sudden, bang, the flood of the century comes and it’s goodbye Tent City, hello big problem and brand new film arc.
In situations where the plight of someone – or a group, as is the case here – is going to be so exposed, emotionally and physically, were you met with resistance from residents who were afraid/ashamed/unwilling to be seen in these conditions?
CANTOR: Yes, some residents did not like our being there, so we were careful not to invade their privacy or film with them at all. Most were receptive and open to sharing their stories and felt that by doing so they could potentially spur some improvements for the homeless.
There is something to be said for the human condition when people like these residents, who are trying to overcome their respective situations – some victims of the economy, some of their own bad decisions – have a more positive outlook on life than people who have so much more than they do. Wendell comments on the fact that he has faith God will pull him from this when He is ready…MacGyver comments on how much of a community they are…I believe it’s Bama who says he just needs “a chance” to prove himself. What were you expecting to find versus the reality of their mental and emotional state of mind?
CANTOR: I think we probably went in expecting alcoholism and drug addiction to be more prevalent and for the general education level to be lower. While those problems certainly exist…on the contrary, we quickly found a group of fairly together and intelligent people and formed friendships that were surprisingly normal. They were, as a group, more functional and “like us” than we expected.
Have any of the residents had a chance to see the final product? What was it like for them to 1) see themselves in a movie, but 2) see their situations play out?
CANTOR: They have decided as a group to watch it together when it airs. Even though it was largely a vérité style shoot where we followed the events in their lives as they unfolded, it was still a lot of work for all of them and a risky and brave move for them, so they are all proud to have participated and anxious to see it.
This story is very quick to cast aside prejudices the audience may have about those who are homeless. We see one person who left a bad marriage, one who left gang life, one a recovering drug addict, another who can’t find work because of a DUI…and to top it off, their problems are exacerbated by the poor economy and lack of jobs. Assuming people have seen the documentary, are people reacting in a way you expected/hoped?
CANTOR: Well, nobody has seen it. I have not even shown it to my parents. Everyone has to watch it on OWN – a documentary about homelessness will need all the help it can get.
We did make a conscious effort to give these people voices and to let let them tell their own stories. I always try to keep my own opinions out of my films and [allow] the participants on screen come to life.