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Human Rights Watch Women Directors: Meet Anne de Mare & Kirsten Kelly (The Homestretch)

Human Rights Watch Women Directors: Meet Anne de Mare & Kirsten Kelly (The Homestretch)

Filmmakers and theater artists Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly have been making documentaries together for over a decade. Their work has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation, Sundance Institute, BRITDOCS, Chicken & Egg Pictures, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Michigan Humanities Council, The Michigan Arts Council, and The Chicago Community Trust, among others. Their first feature, Asparagus! Stalking the American Life, about farmers in rural western Michigan, premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in 2006 and went on to win Best Documentary and Audience Choice awards across the country before broadcasting regionally on PBS.

De Mare and Kelly bring the unique sensibility of a theater background to their film and documentary work and share a deep commitment to projects that celebrate the transformative power of the human spirit. They have a shared focus on the curious, heartbreaking, quirky, and wondrous stories of life in the United States and the shifting nature of what it means to be an American. Their work takes viewers into the particular and unique circumstances of passionate individuals whose stories reflect significant national trends. They are particularly committed to film and media projects that inspire advocacy and change. (Press materials)

The Homestretch will play at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 20 and 21.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

ADM & KK: The Homestretch follows three homeless teens as they fight to stay in school, graduate, and build a future. Each of these smart, ambitious teenagers — Roque, Kasey and Anthony — will surprise, inspire, and challenge audiences to rethink stereotypes of homelessness as they work to complete their education while facing the trauma of being alone and abandoned at an early age. Through haunting images, intimate scenes, and first-person narratives, these teens take us on their journeys of struggle and triumph. As their stories unfold, the film connects us deeply with larger issues of juvenile justice, immigration, foster care, and LGBTQ rights.

With unprecedented access into the Chicago Public Schools, The Night Ministry’s “The Crib” emergency youth shelter, and Teen Living Programs’ Belfort House, The Homestretch follows these kids as they move through the milestones of high school while navigating a landscape of couch-hopping, emergency shelters, transitional homes, street families, and a school system on the frontlines of this crisis. The film examines the struggles these youth face in obtaining a high school-level education, then follows them beyond graduation to focus on the crucial transition when the structure of school vanishes and homeless youth struggle to find the support and community they need to survive and be independent. A powerful, original perspective on what it means to be young, homeless, and building a future in America today.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

ADM & KK: We came to the issue of youth homelessness through a theater program that Kirsten runs each fall with Chicago Public School students called “CPS Shakespeare!” In the fall of 2009, she was shocked to learn that two of the bright, motivated kids she was working with were homeless. It was one of those moments in life when everything just stopped: How could this be? 

These kids were bright, talented, and ambitious. They were going to school and attending rehearsals, but each night they didn’t know where they were going to go. They were working so hard to make something happen for themselves while being alone in an impossible situation. For us, they put a completely unexpected face on homeless youth, and made it clear that there was a story here that we had never heard. 

As we delved deeper into the issue, we learned that so many of the homeless kids we encountered weren’t rebellious runaways, but fierce survivors, escaping the horrors of violence, drug addiction, broken family structures, poverty, and crime. They were often thrown out of the house because of sexual preference, abandoned by parents who were unable emotionally or financially to care for them, or chose to leave because of physical or sexual abuse. We wanted to empower them to tell their own stories, and in turn break the negative stereotypes that surround homeless youth.  

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

ADM & KK: One of our greatest challenges was coming face-to-face with the reality of the chaotic lives of our subjects. Things change daily. Homeless youth have learned not to count on anything. One day, they have a cell phone they can text with. And then they don’t. We would pick them up to film, and they hadn’t eaten for days. We would lose track of them for periods of time. They would be crashing one place one night, and then be somewhere else the next. 

In the end, we worked to allow this chaos into the film, including cell-phone footage they captured themselves while alone, as well as phone calls and text exchanges. Some of our most poetic, intimate interviews happened informally on the fly, while we spent long days and nights with them. 

For more than four years, were privileged to work with these young people at an extremely turbulent and vulnerable time in their lives. Conveying the transition from their adolescence into independent adulthood, it was our goal that the film provide an intimate and haunting portrait of the unique physical, emotional, and psychological needs of homeless teens.  

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

ADM & KK: Support each other. Hire each other. See each other’s films. Talk openly and publicly about specific obstacles and struggles. Talk openly and publicly about each other as artists, storytellers and experts. Negotiate for yourselves. Advocate strongly for yourselves and your projects, and find others to become your fierce supporters.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

ADM & KK: One of the hardest things to communicate to people is the sheer amount of time it takes to get to a real depth of story and to communicate complex issues. With the abundance of fast and cheap media on the internet, it’s hard to explain to people outside of the industry why it takes four or five years (and sometimes longer) to make your film. With The Homestretch, we worked with a dozen different young people over long periods of time to find the three young people whose journeys would make the most powerful film, and we were in the edit room for over a year working to distill all that footage into the most emotionally powerful film we could make.

W&H: Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

ADM & KK: With so many different platforms there are a lot of new opportunities for reaching people outside of the traditional gate-keepers, which is really exciting. But with so many ever-growing options for content, I think one of the biggest challenges is keeping a film or an issue front and center in the public eye for long enough to encourage a real social dialogue.  

W&H: Name your favorite woman directed film and why.

ADM & KK: One of our favorite recent documentaries is Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, because it captured so much about the ways that the public expression of opinions by women can be attacked and diminished by our society in brutally sexist ways, and about what it means to have strength and conviction as women in the current culture.

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