I wanted to fall in love with Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness, an Indianapolis shot film from Don Sawyer with a message I wholeheartedly embrace and a concern that has, at least during the past eight years of former Mayor Greg Ballard's administration, far too easily been swept under the rug.
Unfortunately, I didn't love the film. Truthfully, I didn't even like the film despite having a tremendous amount of respect for Sawyer's effort and the rather investigative techniques that Sawyer and his team employed in telling the story of a long-existing homeless camp under the threat of closure by the city of Indianapolis. Located under a bridge at the corner of South Davidson Street and East Maryland Street, the camp has, over the years, become a family of choice for the 60-70 individuals who live there supporting each other and being supported by local activists, mostly church folks, who visit the camp to provide help and friendship despite being referred to by local Wheeler Mission's Steve Kerr as misguided "do-gooders."
From the reaction of camp residents, there's no love lost there as they speak with equal disdain of Wheeler with one referring to it as "work release."
Under the Bridge is, at its core, an investigative documentary that does a pretty remarkable job of making Indy's city leaders look pretty damn bad and pretty damn greedy. When a smear campaign begins that seeks to throw shade at the long peaceful and communal camp, it becomes apparent that Ballard's quiet yet longstanding disrespect toward Indy's homeless is coming to a head.
Maurice, a well known figure among Indy's homeless and the camp's de factor mayor, is a compelling and articulate figure and one of the central subjects in Under the Bridge. He has helped organize the camp for years, while also being, in essence, the camp's liaison to local groups that help make sure those who reside there are fed, clothed and maintain some semblance of stability.
Under the Bridge is a sad film, even a hard to watch film, for anyone who lives in Indianapolis and who will likely recognize some of those whose portrayal in the film is disheartening at best. The media isn't exempt from Sawyer's wrath as they repeatedly portray the Davidson Street camp and its residents in a negative light with reports of disease, crime and drugs that are never proven and fervently refuted by camp residents, the activists who support them and through the observations of the filmmakers themselves.
Yet, it becomes clear that money talks and when a developer becomes interested in the near downtown land where the camp is located, a pattern of police and city harassment begins.
The material contained within Under the Bridge is compelling and emotionally resonant, though I often found myself distracted by the film's lensing, unusual close-ups and what felt like were attempts to create an emotional impact for the film that was already naturally present in the material. Within the first five minutes of the film, Under the Bridge felt contrived and unnecessarily histrionic and these were feelings I would experience again and again throughout the film. At times, it felt like the filmmaker didn't trust his audience to get the film while other times it just seemed to cross the line into an agenda-driven film. The residents of the Davidson St. Camp themselves are riveting, sympathetic and rather remarkable human beings and there were times I found myself wishing that Sawyer would focus less on drone shots and more on just letting the camera sit within these stories.
Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness is an important film. I just wish it was a more satisfying film.
For more information on the film or to buy tickets, visit the Indy Film Fest website.
Under the Bridge screens on July 19th at 9:15pm at the Toby Theatre at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and on July 23rd at 5pm at the same theatre.
Critic's Note: Under the Bridge picked up the prize for Best Hoosier Lens Feature.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic