By Sage Mcbee
Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
The car rumbles to a slow halt under the dark bridge, streetlamps casting small beams of light across the ground. As food and clothes are handed out, a few “thank yous” and “God bless yous” are exchanged, but most of the emotion can be seen through the caring eyes and warm smiles of the recipients and givers. There is no pity or shame, simply understanding glances from one person to another.
This is a scene from the newly released film, Homeskillet, created by director, writer and actress Phiamma Elias. The film is a fictional drama which addresses the homelessness problems in Portland and throughout the United States.
In Portland, people often ignore homelessness and never realize how lucky they are to have a place to live. However, Elias is one person who definitely hasn’t taken this privilege for granted.
Elias, a kind and relatively quiet middle-aged woman, is very determined and hard-working when it comes to helping others. One of the primary ways that she expresses this determination is through her passion for helping the homeless.
“I worked on Homeskillet for a couple of years, since our first day of shooting on October 30, 2012,” Elias said. “Just that previous February, I made the announcement to my family and to the people who I’m close with that I was going to finally do it.”
Seeing a lot of homelessness where she grew up was a major factor that led Elias to want to create a film about it.
“I was raised in New York and there was a lot of homelessness there; some of my earliest memories are of seeing homeless people having to live on the street,” Elias said. “I never quite understood it; it’s something that I’ve been aware of for a really long time, so I knew that there was a story there that I had to find.”
The film is about a woman named Maggie, played by Elias, who learns a lot about homelessness while volunteering with her daughter and decides to go on a protest fast to bring awareness to the problem.
“Playing the role of Maggie was a challenge and a pleasure,” Elias said. “I gained 25 pounds and lost 43 pounds during the filming and that was physically challenging. Emotionally, playing the role allowed me someplace to put all my feelings which I had to keep under control while I was directing and producing.”
After deciding to make the movie, Elias began the exhaustive process of auditioning people from all around Portland and recruiting a film crew.
“We auditioned for nearly three months and had a cast of 15 lead and supporting roles, as well as dozens of smaller bits, parts and extras,” Elias said. “Everyone who played in the film was a local Portland actor.”
Elias wanted to be sure that all the actors in Homeskillet could successfully express the characters that she had envisioned.
“I believe that the people you cast is a very large part of your film,” Elias said. “It’s 75%, 80% of it; you have got to find the people who bring the quality of the character they are playing to life.”
Once she had chosen her actors and film crew, Elias began to create her movie.
“The actual filming took 26 days over the course of three months,” Elias said. “It took nearly two years from the first day of shooting to the premiere to complete all the aspects of the film.”
These “aspects of the film” included the long processes of film editing, sound design and score, film colorization and sound editing.
“Literally hundreds of people helped to make this film possible,” Elias said. “Film is a collaborative process from start to finish.”
While she agrees that some people are homeless because of their own choices, Elias believes that the vast majority of people are not living on the streets because of bad decisions and deserve a second chance.
“I think that there are a lot of myths about homelessness and that was part of the intention of the film to create a dialogue, a national dialogue, because there are so many myths,” Elias said. “Yes, there are those who are addicted or have mental health issues and they just don’t have the capabilities and so they’re homeless for certain, but they are the fastest growing population in our country, even bigger than immigration.”
One actor who starred in the film, Adam Lau, played the role of Maggie’s son. Lau believes that being part of this film really changed his perspective on homelessness.
“[The experience] shaped my reality of the situation entirely,” he said. “I moved to Portland from Virginia as soon as I graduated college and that was my first wake up to homelessness in America.”
Lau said that he thinks homelessness is largely caused by a lack of effort from the community and so he hopes to avoid being part of the problem.
“A great deal is due to this economical vacuum,” he said. “It can take one bad instance to spiral someone’s life out of control, in which on a monetary aspect can be impossible to recover from. Portland is a small city with a lot of people in it and the city needs to learn to accommodate the population to provide enough jobs, shelter and prospects for the lives it promises to protect and keep.”
Many interviews with current homeless citizens in Portland are included in the film to make it as accurate as possible.
“I talk to the homeless as often as I can and their stories inspire me to help,” Elias said. “When I see people on the street, I am deeply moved, especially when those people living on the street are children.”
As much as it is based on the issue of homelessness, Elias also wanted the film to portray the effect that one major decision can have on the world and how important it is to have your family along the journey.
“It’s definitely about homelessness, but just as much as that it’s about a decision that one person has to make and how the people around that person – her family, her loved ones – have to take that journey with her,” Elias said.
Elias went on her own journey with her family to film the movie.
“My whole family supported me in so many ways,” Elias said. “My sister was the co-producer, my sons created the music and my husband and parents have also been very supportive.”
Cooper Stites, Elias’ son and a producer of the music used in Homeskillet, said that the film process really changed his perspective on homelessness.
“I would say it definitely opened my eyes,” Stites said. “I always knew about the homeless and that it was an issue, but I never fully thought about the actual numbers; how many are on the streets any given night; how many are children; how many are starving or freezing. It was enlightening and saddening at the same time.”
Stites thought it was very exciting to be so involved in the film.
“It was a little nerve-racking to be composing the score because I felt there was a lot of pressure on me,” Stites said. “The music can really make or break a film so I was struggling with the thought of writing music that didn’t fit the movie at all or just wouldn’t support it in the way I had hoped. But it all worked out in the end and I am very happy with the final result.”
Elias said that she is also very happy with how the film turned out.
“There’s the film that you write, the film that you shoot and the film that you end up with and that is the journey,” Elias said. “Your job is to really let this story say what it is trying to say and to not get in the way of that.”
The movie was entirely non-profit, supported by donations and personal funding. This introduced the problem of getting Homeskillet premiered, as it is difficult to do so without a lot of money. Fortunately, Elias and her team were able to get the film featured publicly anyway.
“The Northwest Film Center invited us to premiere through their Northwest Tracking Series and we took it from there,” Elias said.
Homeskillet was first shown on October 9, 2014 at the Portland Art Museum. Since the premiere, the film has been shown at the Mission Theatre and multiple times on OPB. Homeskillet has also been shown at numerous schools around Portland.
“I have a pretty good idea of how diverse audiences respond to it and the one thing that stays consistent and has told me that the film is effective is that everyone got involved in the people in the story,” Elias said. “People could all relate in some way with the actors.”
The DVD is being sold for $20 on the Homeskillet website.
Not only has Elias produced a film to address homelessness, but she is also currently trying to introduce a bill to congress called 4 WALLS and A ROOF. The bill will give all people the inherent right to shelter.
“As a child I wondered, ‘Why don’t we give [homeless people] a home?’” Elias said. “As an adult I know that we do have the answers, but first we need to pass a bill that acknowledges that shelter is a basic human right.”
In order to introduce the bill, Elias needs at least 200 people to sign a petition. She currently has over 150 signatures.
“The 4 WALLS and A ROOF campaign is meant to keep the national conversation about homelessness going and hopefully at some point, a way to show those in power that citizens truly want to support the homeless,” Elias said.
To sign the 4WALLSNAROOF petition or get more information about the campaign, go to here.
To get more information about Homeskillet or purchase the DVD, go here.
Photo Credits: Pigeon Press