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A British filmmaker asks, “Why?”

A British filmmaker asks, "Why?"

Filmmaker Penny Woolcock seems to be a bit of a national treasure here in England. Receiving a prestigious documentary prize last night here in London, she unveiled her latest, “On The Streets,” on Monday at the BFI. Woolcock, a British filmmaker (and Opera director) who was born in Argentina and then grew up in Uruguay, spent eight months with London’s homeless. She said the film began with a simple question, “Why?”

What drove these Brits to lives on the sidewalks of the city?

Those that Woolcock followed were lead to ‘rough sleeping’ by the emotional issues in their lives, rather than financial challenges, Woolcock explained to The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins at a post-screening Q & A. “Whatever it is that’s happening at home, it’s painful,” she said, that pain forcing them to flee.

In the case of one woman that Woolcock tracked, she experienced something horrible at home as a child. Still unable to cope with the tragedy of her youth decades later, the woman is more secure on the streets, using drugs, in a string of bad relationships with men. Through her gentle interrogation of this woman, as well as other folks who are torn between sidewalks and public assistance, Woolcock depicted homelessness in a way that challenges audiences.

“It was a journey of discovery,” Woolcock reiterated on Monday, on the eve of receiving the Grierson Trustees award at the British Documentary Awards, “It was something much deeper.”

Some of the subjects of her film and their friends joined Woolcock for Monday’s screening at the BFI Southbank, laughing and commenting throughout the screening. “We don’t laugh because its funny,” one man later explained. Its just the only way he knows how to react to something so painful, the homeless man added.

Woolcock, who is headed to the Sheffield Doc/Fest this week, seems aimed at altering viewers’ attitudes about homelessness and challenging policies and programs meant to help the homeless. But, she said she realizes that a shift in policy and public attitudes will take more than just a movie.

“Films don’t change anything,” Penny Woolcock summarized, “But, they are a part of change.”

iPhone photo by Eugene Hernandez

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