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Interview: ‘Tent City USA’ Director Steven Cantor Talks His Process, Documentary Storytelling & The Homelessness Issue

Interview: 'Tent City USA' Director Steven Cantor Talks His Process, Documentary Storytelling & The Homelessness Issue

Premiering on OWN on Thursday night, “Tent City USA” documents the lives of a group of homeless people in Nashville and the trials and tribulations they face in their quest to finds homes and a community, no matter how one might conceive of it. Executive producer Gabriel Byrne spearheaded the project, produced exclusively for OWN, who are now branching out into documentary production for the channel in addition to broadcasting festival hits. Byrne brought on noted documentary filmmaker Steven Cantor (“Devil’s Playground,” “loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies”) to bring the story to life.

Cantor’s film goes inside the community known as Tent City in Nashville, where he is granted unprecedented access to the place and we are introduced to Wendell, MacGuyver, Stacey, Bama, Tee Tee and Vegas, as well as the other residents of the city. These people have found themselves homeless for a variety of reasons, but they have found a supportive community in Tent City, the benefits of which are extolled throughout the beginning of the film. Tent City is configured as a happy, safe community whose residents work together to make it as much of a home as it can be, the tents and ramshackle structure among the woods underneath the highway. Of course, even in this harrowing condition, it’s too good to be true: the city wants Tent City relocated because it lies in a flood plain, an issue the Tent City residents have never dealt with. While they try and find a new location for the community, nature expedites things, as the floods that devastated Nashville in May 2010 destroy the community and render it a biohazard. As the residents and their advocates from the Otter Creek Church scramble to find a place for them to live, the film presents just how difficult everything is for people who live on the streets, their numbers growing as employment becomes scarce. They find a plot of land to camp, but the community doesn’t want them there. They might be out of sight, but simply their presence causes a storm of protest in the neighboring town of Antioch. 

Eventually, the advocates, especially the tireless pastor Jeannie (a former corporate lawyer), organize to elect a homeless person to a seat on the city’s homelessness commission, a much-needed voice for the people who are actually dealing with these issues and a fresh dose of perspective for a commission that has accomplished little in their tenure. After a heated campaign, the outspoken and compassionate Stacey is eventually elected to the position. After the drama of the floods, displacement and the election, the film shows how our main protagonists move on, some to real homes, some to government housing, and some to a new camp site. It’s a film that offers up a political message in a way that’s not over the top or heavy handed. Cantor gets into the community, let’s you get to know the people, and lets them do the talking. He doesn’t sugar coat or sand down the edges of these issues and it’s these nuanced arguments that really make the audience think. There are a few extremely poignant moments, like Stacey and Bama paying for their wedding dress at a thrift shop, or Tee Tee and Vegas receiving a phone call in the car on their way to move, that their government housing isn’t ready that really tug at the heart strings. It’s a well-crafted and timely documentary that offers a window into that world for a brief moment, but you hope that the awareness of this issue has a life beyond the film.

We caught up with director Steven Cantor for a few questions about the doc, his filmmaking process, and what he sees for the future.

The Playlist: The level of intimacy and access in the Tent City community seen in the film is quite remarkable, not to mention this particular community has great characters and drama– what drew you to this subject matter and what was your point of entry into this particular community?
Steven Cantor: Gabriel Byrne and [executive producer] Leora Rosenberg first pitched me the idea of a film on homelessness. Leora is involved with a New York based homeless facility called The Doe Fund and thought there might be a story there. And Gabriel is one of those genuinely sympathetic souls who felt the homeless experience must be unbearable and sought a way to capture the essence of that. Our producing partner, Margaret McCombs and I honed the idea in on Nashville’s tent city. We were drawn by the notion of a group of people who have lost every semblance of community in their lives, only to band together to create a new community.

I was particularly struck by how being homeless amplifies everything in life. For example, when the river flooded in Nashville, it was hard on the whole city and made national headlines. But what did not get attention was that the tent city homeless population lost EVERYTHING they had. It was not much to begin with, but whatever it was was gone and they had to start from scratch.

Your films achieve a level of intimacy and closeness with people in order to properly tell their stories, but do you ever have conflicts in remaining an objective filmmaker or worry about how your subjects will receive the film?
I have a different approach to documentaries than most people. I do become close and involved and connected to the participants in my films and I see the films as a collaborative process. I sometimes even go as far as discussing what we might shoot and planning it out with them somewhat. In some respects, I am something of a narrative fiction director who happens to be working in documentaries — I take a lot of my structural storytelling and even visual design cues from fiction films. I think it is essential in each case that the final film feels true to the individuals portrayed and the essence of their stories, but I don’t mind if the specifics of getting there are a little “organized” as long as they appear real. I have not had many complaints from the subjects. Since they are usually pretty aware of my process throughout filming, they tend to think the final products do just what I have prepared them for.

Do you have a method for choosing what stories you want to tell?
I am pretty specifically and narrowly interested in expressive people who are undergoing something in the present, ideally with an ending in sight. It’s not easy to sell me on a concept. In spite of Gabriel and Leora’s infectious passion, I was not sold on a film about homelessness until Margaret found Tent City and we met the residents there, so many of whom had riveting problems and compelling and surprising personalities.

The political stance of the film is not something that feels heavy handed or forced on the audience — is this something that you strive for in your filmmaking style, and what is your intended goal or message in making this film? Do you think it has a life beyond audiences simply experiencing the stories of these people?
I don’t really go into films with a political stance of my own. I tend to let people tell their own stories and try to maintain as much neutrality as possible. It’s exciting to have made a film for OWN — they have the potential to make a lot of noise, so hopefully this film will have a long, loud life. But insofar as a political stance on the thorny issue of homelessness, I don’t really have one. And I’m not sure anyone would care even if I did. But there are certainly some impassioned individuals on that screen.

“Tent City USA” premieres tonight on OWN at 8 p.m. EST.

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