Community First is a true passion project of director Layton Blaylock. Seeing him involved in the residents’ lives is a powerful thing and reminds me of why we choose to make films: to explore the humanity in the ordinary, and to expose critical issues hiding in plain sight and to call us to action. A combination of talking heads (interviews that were an hour long whittled down into minutes of footage — painful when you think about the level of commitment and heart involved in each one), with a spread of representation from residents to mission workers, police department representatives to the founder of the project, this is a powerful, touching documentary that moved many of the audience members, who were themselves part of the project, to tears.
Community First, a Home for the Homeless
Director: Layton Blaylock
Release Date: March 9, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)
Community First is a local residential area in Austin, Texas, that provides homes and, most importantly, a sense of belonging to people who have been defined as ‘chronically homeless’ – that is, an unaccompanied man or woman, often with a mental health difficulty, who has been left to live on the streets (on or off) for a period of three years. Some of the stories are heartbreaking: we see men and women who have been on the streets since as early as six years old. It made me think, in the wealthiest society in the world, how can homelessness and abandonment still exist?
As of June 2018, the Community is home to over 200 residents, with more to be placed in homes as later stages progress. It’s a unique project in that it provides people with jobs and a sense of purpose, often creating products and offering services that improve each other’s and the wider community wellbeing. It’s clear from the testimony of founder Alan Gram that it’s not just homelessness that ruins lives — it’s hopelessness. Everyone needs other people in order to fulfill their most basic needs, security and acceptance. While housing solves half the problem, the real heart of the documentary is about exploring the need to cultivate human relationships, to foster a sense of love and belonging and to break down barriers, stigma, and stereotypes surrounding homelessness, in order to create a new model for living.
One story was of a lady who had been on the streets since the age of six years old, having experienced multiple traumatic experiences early on in life: sexual abuse, the near-suicide of her mother, constant fear on the streets through being a vulnerable adult. As mentioned in the Q&A after the film’s premiere, the team could have crafted an entire documentary just around her life. However, it’s fantastic to see the change in her life as a result of the programme: now engaged to a man also part of the project, she’s visibly happier than she’s been in years.
One of the most intriguing parts of the documentary was the mention of the trauma of the transition between living in the streets and living in a real home. It’s not something we initially think of, but it makes sense: psychologically, it’s a real shock. Men and women talked about the fact that they couldn’t sleep on the bed, opting instead for the floor, some even sleeping outside the house. They talked about the paranoia that accompanied them even in their new life, showing that homelessness is more than just physical, but a state of mind. This also shows how important it is to tackle the epidemic of homelessness, inextricable as it is with mental health and wellbeing.
Some impactful stats were also included in the documentary, such as the extraordinary number of homeless living in Austin or the number of extremely hot days in the year that take their toll on people out on the streets. But, the film wasn’t saturated by these figures — instead, they served to punctuate the real-life stories, which were the lifeblood of the picture. It was an intimate screening and I had a chance to speak to some of the audience members; some of whom were residents of the community. The effect the documentary had on their lives was tangible; it’s clear that Layton as a director was truly invested in their cause. It’s only a shame that I don’t have the capacity to name everyone here because each story deserves recognition.
My only criticism is to say that the film wasn’t long enough to fully explore the stories. I would have really enjoyed seeing more time given to the people in front of the camera, and also to perhaps have seen a day in the life of one of the residents, yet I know that with time constraints this wouldn’t have been possible. Instead, the focus of the film was the overarching theme of belonging, healing, and reconciliation from the past so that they could move on and live meaningful, dignified lives. One of my favorite sentiments from the documentary was dignity can always be restored — it moved me to tears to think that of the compassion that the workers of the project and the residents offer each other. But, the film also made the clear distinction that the community was not bourne out of pity, but of a desire to restore dignity and value to local individuals’ lives.
One of the reasons SXSW is such a powerful platform is that it gives independent documentaries such as this a platform that amplifies the stories of ordinary people. That’s not to say that these people are ordinary: in many cases, it’s the extraordinariness of their lives that makes them so special. And I’m so pleased that Community First was the first film I got to review over the course of the festival: it helped to set the precedence for the rest of the festival, putting into perspective what really matters in life and how much we take life for granted. In fact, the work of the entire team behind this project have got to the heart of why we watch films: to make a connection with the stories of others who are just like us. Community First has served to break down barriers surrounding homelessness and is an exemplary look at the way we can practically reach out to the most marginalized in our cities.