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The Independent Critic

Mike, Aric, Gilbert, Tina, Tracey (and family) and Eduardo
Rachel Fleischer
74 Mins.
Breaking Glass Pictures (DVD)

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 "Without a Home" Review 
There is an unwritten rule in journalism. If you violate it, you may very well find yourself unemployed.

You never become part of the story.

There are certain publications who will not even consider a freelancer who utilizes words such as "I," "Me" or "My" within the context of a story, feature or even film review. This unwritten rule applies to print, broadcast and even, at least to a certain degree, web-based journalism.

There are those who will break this unwritten rule. Admittedly, this rule is sometimes broken by those who don't know any better or by those for whom professional journalism is not the goal. However, there's also a more freestyle journalist who believes that there's a place for the journalist within the framework of a story. There's a place for a writer's personal thoughts, experiences, ideas and convictions.

A sexual abuse survivor writing, for example, about their own life experiences along the healing journey can turn a dramatic piece into a harrowing and intimate piece of journalism. The same can be true for any number of real life topics, where a writer's ability to tell the story while being vulnerably present can allow the story to become transcendent.

Without a Home is such a film.

Conceived and directed by Rachel Fleischer, who began her four year journey in making the film as a 23-year-old Los Angeles resident with a compassionate curiosity about the city's 90,000 homeless, Without a Home intimately and yet with tremendous dignity and affection explores the lives of six individuals who are Without a Home.

It should be immediately noted that while Fleischer does allow herself to become part of this story, she is most definitely not the film's defining story. Without a Home is not about some do-gooder white chick swooping into L.A.'s Skid Row and rescuing the homeless. Instead, Without a Home is about these remarkable human beings who find themselves, for a variety of reasons, living their lives without a home AND how their encounters with this young and curious filmmaker impacts their life AND the life of this almost insatiably curious young woman who also happens to be a filmmaker.

The stories contained within Without a Home aren't played for drama, because they don't need to be. How much more drama do you need when you're living on Skid Row and struggling with addiction or struggling to raise a family or, yes, even struggling to help others while your own life is still on the edge?

These people are remarkable and, that, perhaps may be what makes Without a Home such a brilliant film. You may find yourself, should find yourself, aching for these people in their difficult circumstances. However, it's nearly impossible to actually pity them because Without a Home doesn't paint the usual cinematic portrait of the homeless but, instead, brings these people vibrantly to life with honesty and tremendous compassion.

  • Mike is a recovering heroin addict who succeeds in helping others while seemingly never able to help himself.
  • Aric is a compulsive collector and a brilliant bluegrass musician who would be "ashamed" if he ever had to turn to a shelter.
  • Gilbert is a homeless heroin addict determined to overcome his addiction and reclaim custody of his two children.
  • Tina is a schizophrenic survivor of domestic abuse who struggles to take care of her cat and herself.
  • Tracey's family is among the city's "hidden homeless," an often uncounted population often living within motels and temporary shelters. They are desperate to find permanence for the sake of their two young children.
  • Eduardo is a Guatemalan ex-addict who is driven by compassion to continue helping others while maintaining his own sobriety.
Rachel, and you will feel like you're on a first-name basis with her by the end of the film, took out a loan and bought a video camera when she was a mere 23-years-old. Naively yet authentically, she set out interviewing the homeless of her city both to give them voice and to give herself an understanding of their plight. Eventually, she found the courage to venture over to Skid Row, a part of L.A. that's so devastating and so third world that it's difficult to believe that we as Americans allow anyone to live in such a way. Rachel discovered along the way that she was starting to form relationships with a small handful of those individuals she was encountering. They would ask for help and, despite being overwhelmed by the need and in way over her head, Rachel would do what she could and, in the process, learned more than she ever believed possible about the social, cultural and psychological roots that allow the cycle of homelessness to perpetuate.

A more experienced journalist, in all likelihood, would have created a sense of detached compassion that would have created relationships and a film that felt manipulative or even exploitative. While one can certainly put forth an argument that Rachel becomes too involved in these lives, by allowing herself to become vulnerable and fully open to every aspect of these people's lives she creates one of the most intelligent, informative and, I dare say it, even entertaining films on a subject that is far from entertaining.

There's something completely refreshing about someone, in this case Rachel, simply surrendering to a project and allowing herself to be fully present within it. There are times when these interviews are going on that you'll be scratching your head going "No, really," but that's a huge part of what makes the film work. Both the filmmaker and these individuals are changed by this experience, mostly for the better, and the end result is a film that paints the portrait of these peoples' lives with both heart and mind.

Fleischer earned her Bachelor's Degree in Film from USC School of Cinematic Arts, but it's important to note that she didn't begin working on this film until after graduation (In other words, this wasn't a "project."). She also recently helmed a music video for David Lynch-signed musician Ariana Delawari, an Afghani-American musician. Additionally, her devotion to the cause of those without a home continues as she's launched the campaign "What Can I Do?," devoted to the use of art in social action for education and awareness.

Sally Rubin edits the film's seamlessly and with equal devotion to the film's intellectual and emotional resonance, while the original score by Jacques Brautbar is simply exceptional.

Without a Home will be released on home video on November 1st, 2011 courtesy of those awesome folks at Breaking Glass Pictures, who've again discovered a tremendous film and are giving it the distribution it deserves. The DVD will include a variety of awesome extra features including the recording of the awesome song "Without a Home," deleted scenes, expert interviews, dangerous encounters, a "Making of" feature and profiles of the homeless.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic