Film about formerly homeless teen is screened at NAEH Conference
By Catherine Hinrichsen, Project Director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness
The revered documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark died months ago, but we felt her presence very strongly as we watched her final work on the night of Feb. 18, 2016.
We had gathered for a private screening of “Tiny – The Life of Erin Blackwell,” the film Ms. Mark had produced before her death in May 2015 with her husband, Martin Bell, who also directed. The film is a follow-up to the unforgettable, Academy Award-nominated 1984 documentary “Streetwise,” which Mark and Bell had produced along with Cheryl McCall.
“Tiny – The Life of Erin Blackwell” catches us up on what’s happened to one of the memorable homeless teens from “Streetwise.” It’s the result of a deeply personal, decades-long relationship between Erin “Tiny” Blackwell and the two people who would act as her surrogate family.
The screening was part of the Conference on Ending Homelessness in Oakland, Calif., hosted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
In a darkened hotel conference room at the Oakland Marriott, 150-200 people who could have been out enjoying Bay Area attractions on a clear moonlit night instead chose to stay in and watch a sometimes-challenging film.
Maybe we all felt privileged to be among the first in the world to see it. It’s only been screened for a handful of people up to now, as the filmmakers submit it to film festivals and plan a 10-city tour of the “Streetwise Revisited Media Project.” The project includes the new book, “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited” and a traveling photo exhibit of Mary Ellen Mark’s photos of Erin.
I knew many people would be anxious to hear about the screening, including my colleagues back in Seattle and the very active “Streetwise Fans & Family” Facebook group, with 2,600+ members. So I planned to live-tweet the screening, but I thought I should be judicious about what I posted, so as not to violate any restrictions on sharing the content at such an early stage. Note: From here forward I will be so bold as to call Mary Ellen Mark, Martin Bell and Erin Blackwell by their first names.
Before the screening, I asked Martin what would be okay to share. For example, I offered, I could say that it’s so moving watching the interaction between Mary Ellen and Erin in the film.
“Yes. That’s it exactly,” he nodded enthusiastically. “The film is their story.” Later, the director, who also painstakingly edited 32 years of film into this 90-minute documentary, said that “It’s Mary Ellen’s film.”
So, this is not a recap or review, but a description of how this audience responded to the film. They are the nonprofit service providers, government employees, funders, advocates and others who came to the conference to talk about best practices in ending homelessness, and joined together to watch a film that makes a provocative statement about how we’re doing.
“It’s Mary Ellen’s film”: A brief description of “Tiny”
Martin Bell calls the film “a 30-year conversation between two strong women.” Indeed, one of the most striking elements of the film is those two women reminiscing about Erin’s life, as seen on a tablet that’s playing “Streetwise” and the moments that Mary Ellen captured in her striking black-and-white photos.
The media strategy firm Story Matters is working with the filmmakers to increase opportunities for audience and engagement and social impact. Here’s how Story Matter describes the film in the promo packet.
“The film provides a full picture of what it is like to live in poverty and at risk. There are moments of joy and love, there is despair and there is hope. Tiny is a survivor. The film does not stand in judgment of Tiny’s life or the choices she has made; rather, it implicitly challenges viewers to examine their own perspectives.
“Importantly, the film also doesn’t offer solutions, setting it apart from many contemporary social-issue documentaries that point audiences toward specific actions and ways to address the problems portrayed.”
“We become who we are” — What audience members said
As the film concluded and the hushed audience absorbed what we had just seen, Bell welcomed us to share our reactions to the deeply visceral film.
I think we were still processing our roiling emotions and it was hard to know where to start. “I was drawn to the fact they were real people; I could relate to their struggles,” ventured the first person to comment, breaking the ice. After that the comments came rapidly, and here are a few I was able to capture, as I tweeted as quickly as I could (#NAEH16).
“I just loved it. I want people with money to see it,” one person said. Another noted the tendency of people to make judgments about homelessness, and pointed out that “Tiny” was made without judgment.
Many of us were very curious about what Erin herself thought of the film. Martin said he visited Erin and her family at her Seattle-area home over Thanksgiving, and showed the film to the whole family. He said he had been “terrified” about her possible reaction; Erin had given them such unfettered access that they captured moments most of us might feel invasive – from what we look like when we wake up in the morning to some bitter fights between family members. But, Erin accepted it, said Martin, and so did her kids. Afterwards they gave it enthusiastic applause, he said, “the best I ever had.” In fact, he said, one of the younger children said, “This was just like a movie!”
More audience comments, condensed for Twitter and reconstituted here:
“Tiny made her choices and lived with them. The film was more about addiction than homelessness; that hold that addiction gets on you is forever.”
“I thought it was phenomenal. I loved the juxtaposition of beautiful scenery with the reality of Tiny’s life… What happened to her didn’t happen overnight.”
“The story told itself, without narration. It was so powerful.”
“The story engages so many systems — foster care, homelessness, criminal justice, addiction. It’s a fiction to separate them.”
“It didn’t feel uncomfortable to me despite the hardships we saw her going through because it was a shared experience, not an ‘othering’ experience.”
“We become who we are because of what happens to us…I was getting angry watching it.”
“The dignity you allowed that family to tell their story is a beautiful thing.”
“Erin defies categorization. I would describe her as incredibly resilient. The film gave me lot of respect for her.”
After watching a film like this, audience members usually feel driven to do something. Until “Tiny” is in wide distribution, here are a few things you can do to help make that happen.
What You Can Do
- If you’re interested in bringing the Streetwise Revisited Media Project to your community, contact Story Matters: Patricia Finneran, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Mikaela Beardsley, email@example.com.
- Learn more about the work of Mary Ellen Mark at http://www.maryellenmark.com.
- Eventually, you can visit the website for the film when it goes live at tinythefilm.com.
- Listen to a recent radio interview with Erin and Martin by KPLU Public Radio’s Gabriel Spitzer on the show “Sound Effect.”
In Seattle, our project hopes to work with The Seattle Public Library to bring both the film and the photo exhibit to our region in fall 2016 or possibly earlier, depending on the film festival outcomes. Stay tuned for more information or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.