How a moving documentary changed the way I think about Canada’s homeless
BY Lora Grady
Nearly every seat in the Toronto theatre is taken when I show up for a screening of Us & Them, an eye-opening documentary that irrevocably alters my view on what it is to experience homelessness. Based on the trailer I’d seen, I expect the film to be pretty hard-hitting and emotional, and ready my tissues just in case (turns out, it’s a good thing I did).
Us & Them exposes the realities of life on the streets. It’s shot in Victoria, B.C., but these harsh realities could apply to the streets of any big city. The documentary opens with powerful black-and-white images of the homeless an elderly man with imploring eyes sits cross-legged on the sidewalk; a well-dressed woman walks by a dingy makeshift shelter made out of a bike rack. My own heart pounds as I think about what it must be like to try to find somewhere “safe” to sleep outside in the city every single night.
The film introduces us to four people who call the streets “home”: Stan Hunter, Eddie Golko, Dawnellda Gauthier and Karen Montgrand—all of whom experienced heart-wrenching trauma that lead to years of struggling with addiction and homelessness. Montgrand shares how she lost every member of her family, including a sister who went missing in 1979, while Gauthier talks about how her son was murdered in 1995. Hearing the pain in their voices, I’m already reaching for my tissues (this is not a film you can just stoically sit through).
“If someone had told me at any point in my life I would have been homeless, I would have thought they were nuts,” Montgrand says, while images of her former life flash across the screen (in one, she poses next to her husband on her wedding day, a flower in her hair; in another, she smiles at the camera with her young son on her lap).
No child dreams of living on the street—the very least we can do is acknowledge each other’s existence
After the screening and accompanying panel discussion, I ask producer Krista Loughton why she devoted 10 years of her life to making the film and she tells me the idea stemmed from a trip to Zimbabwe when she was 19. Loughton says she was troubled by the number of people sleeping on hard-packed dirt floors and always wanted to go back to do something to help, but as she got older, she realized there was an opportunity to help those in need right in her own backyard.
Loughton befriended all four of the people in the film and became deeply invested in their lives, trying to help them beat addiction. Unfortunately, all four of her friends began to slide back into old habits about halfway through the project, which hit Loughton hard.
“Recovery is not a straight line,” she tells me. “It’s up and down and all over the place until hopefully, people come out the other side. And many times, they don’t. But I remember when I was working with Dawnellda, she would always say to me, ‘you’ve gotta show the truth. It can’t be sugar coated.’ All of them insisted that it be real.” Which, at times, is hard to watch, especially as the four try desperately, and fail, to get their lives back on track.
Throughout the film, Loughton exposes the systemic issues in Canada that prevent the homeless from receiving the support they need, and addresses misconceptions about how and why people wind up living on the street. Going into the film, I carried a few misconceptions about homeless people myself. I pass the same men and women every day on my way to work and barely take notice, not taking any time to consider the path that lead them to where they are. But, as is pointed out during the panel discussion, no child dreams of living on the street—the very least we can do is acknowledge each other’s existence. “If you’ve ever wanted to sit down next to a homeless person and hear their story, you just did—with four,” Loughton says.
Twelve years after she began making the film, which she funded through a Kickstarter campaign, Loughton’s doc has been screened more than 50 times in 40 cities across the country—and all of profits from the film are donated to rehabilitative support for people experiencing homelessness.
“Film is a really powerful medium for social change,” says Loughton. “I want people to leave the theatre and never look at someone who’s living outside on our streets the same way again. The film is 82 minutes long. People can give up just over an hour to be moved to change.”
When the lights come up, I join the audience in a round of thunderous applause, tissues crumpled in my fist. I, along with many others, approach Loughton to tell her how moving—and eye-opening—the film is. Then, when it’s all over, I walk home, thinking about what I can do to make a change. While I’m mulling things over, I make sure to smile at every single person I pass on the sidewalk—when a man sitting on a curb smiles back, I realize that, sometimes, it’s as simple as making a small human connection.♥