Filming marginalized, disenfranchised, and downtrodden people from a privileged position brings with it complex considerations, but documenting the lives of the homeless is particularly tricky ethical terrain, inviting as it does the pitfalls of condescension and exploitation—The Onion perhaps summed up the dilemma best: “Area Photo 201 Students All Take Pictures of Same Homeless Guy.” Thirty-two-year-old Linas Phillips would at first glance seem unready to tackle such a project: he’s a heart-on-sleeve admirer of Werner Herzog—whose films have often used societal outcasts as projections of his own eccentric worldview—and in his first feature, Walking to Werner, the young director’s encounters with poor and mentally unstable strangers served as fascinating markers on an individualistic journey.
But Phillips’s follow-up, Great Speeches from a Dying World, does justice to nine or so homeless people from Seattle by documenting their stories with attentive compassion and, in the film’s biggest gamble, he gets them to choose a famous speech from history to recite for the camera. Because Phillips usually stays out of their way, the personalities and backgrounds of the homeless men and women come to the fore—how Mike, a former repairman and current alcoholic, was forced to live on the streets after losing his van and tools and has since been beaten down to the point of resignation: “I haven’t given up hope, but I’ve given up trying for a while.” Phillips captures, through anecdotes and candid moments, the daily indignities of panhandling and the difficulty of gaining any sort of edge in a world to which the homeless are a nuisance; at one point, Sarge must renew the energy of his electric wheelchair by plugging into an outlet outside a department store, but security prevents him from doing so. From these portraits emerge the rules and customs of street life, from drug dealing to finding free meals to applying for housing, and it’s to Phillips’s credit that he never romanticizes nor mystifies them.
Click here to read all of Michael Joshua Rowin's review of Great Speeches from a Dying World.