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At The Movies: Streets of San Francisco: The Landfill *** 1/2

One of the best things about living in any big city, but especially Los Angeles, is access to all forms of cinema houses. Because of the thriving indie scene here, and because of the continued interest in subversive or experimental film, there are fringe outlets where some of Los Angeles’ best offerings can be seen, and they’re about as far from a multiplex as you can get.

The Documental film series shows films once a month on Monday nights at the UnUrban Coffeehouse. This coming Monday, December 11, a doubleheader of films by women filmmakers will screen. One of them is Sharon Farrell’s documentary, The Landfill, which profiles three Bay Area homeless people living on a state-owned property used for discarded highway debris.

The Landfill tells a sad but oftentimes uplifting story from the point of view of three of the residents who refuse to leave once the state decides it’s time to kick them out. The three are Sarah, an educated former social worker and Peace Corps volunteer; John Paul, a Vietnam vet; and Dancer, a former pro boxer. All three have built their own little nests at the landfill and all three are ordered to leave.

Farrell doesn’t do much editorializing of her subjects but rather allows them to tell their stories in their own words. The result is that these three seem to be telling us their chosen story, but it is so obviously not the whole story. Whatever pain lives inside them that forced them out of society to live on the fringe has long since been packed down so that they can survive, tough outer shell intact.

One of the best scenes in the film has Dancer, a quite lovely and lanky former boxer, sitting on his box with a sign that is asking for money. As the cars pass, he throws out digs and remarks at the drivers, like, “Never seen a black man before, huh?”

As rebellious and cantankerous and independent as Dancer is, in order to survive in the world he made for himself, he must come to depend on the kindness of strangers in the form of change and dollar bills, which are reluctantly given.

All three of the people in the film are articulate, clear-headed and if they’re ruled by any drug or drink it isn’t really important here. Perhaps that’s because once you introduce a culturally unacceptable weakness, you’re completely written off.

We are able to see them as they are, without their vices. It’s disturbing, no doubt. On the one hand, these are people who no one really wants to look at. We don’t want them on our streets, we don’t want them taking our money, and we don’t want them on our public waste landfills. On the other hand, we’re all creatures of the same species and some of us land on our feet and some of us don’t. Imagining life as a nomad – someone who has no ties, no credit cards, no bank account, no address – can also shed some light on how basic our needs really are.

What do we need to survive? Food, shelter, companionship. These three have found a way to get these things and keep on going, one brutal day at a time.

Funnily enough, the stories they tell and their attitudes about their lives are anything but self-pitying. They shrug off victimhood and spend a lot of time defending their choice – they do call it a choice. Some of the time it seems as though they are protesting too much, and it would be nice to hear one of them whine about having a “real life.” But then again, where would they be if that was their mantra? Nowhere, fast. In order to live these lives, they must have accepted them long ago. It isn’t their problem learning how to do that; it’s ours.

Documental shows films at the UnUrban Coffeehouse, 3301 Pico Boulevard, 310.315.0056. The Landfill will show at 7 p.m.; 8:30 p.m. is Betsy Kalin’s Hearts Cracked Open.

Also recommended this week is Off the Black, written and directed by James Ponsoldt. It is a story about an aging umpire (Nick Nolte) who asks a teenage punk kid (Trevor Morgan) to go to his high school reunion with him and pretend to be his son. Nolte has never been better. A character drama with a beating heart at its center, Ponsoldt introduces himself as a director to be reckoned with. Don’t miss a chance to see it when it opens on December 8 at the Nuart.

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