by Rahdi Taylor
My mother, who lives down the block from me, always seemed to me to live in two worlds at once. Wholly sane, competent and rational, she nonetheless is one of those individuals who even from a young age could walk and talk among the dead almost as freely as she can among the living.
In truth, it took me a long time to realize that when she said she had spoken to Aunt so-and-so the night before, it wasn’t the one-way type of conversation that I might have in passing with an ancestor, but a conversation. A visit.
So I’ve always been compelled by the way we treat those who are closest to the other side of life, and those who bear witness to the transition.
Who was it that said something to the effect that you can tell everything about a civilization by the way its members care for the young and raise their children, by the way they celebrate loving relationships, and by the way they call out and bury their dead?
In Dogtown Redemption, the film’s three primary subjects, as well as the filmmakers themselves, bear witness to the journey of being human, and celebrate the sacred acts of life with nothing short of love.
Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush’s documentary film about homeless recyclers in West Oakland paints a tender portrait of souls who may from a distance look lost, until a closer up, intimate look reveals individuals who in many ways demonstrate some of the best in the measure of a man.
Love and integrity contour much of the personal actions of Jason, Langdon and Miss Kay.
Jason is embraced as a dedicated, if troubled, working man caring for his partner and loving his child the best way he can.
Langdon overcomes adversity and fights for a second chance at happiness and romantic love as a true and caring partner, and extends the promise of this redemption to his neighbors on the street.
And Miss Kay walks through life half in the shadows of death as she struggles with demons and ailments, and fights to grieve with dignity for her lost loves.
In a society that blames poverty on the poor and assumes those without cash are without values, Dogtown Redemption shines a light on the resilience, resourcefulness, complexity, interdependence, persistence, vision, caring, humanity and purpose that is found in Jason, Langdon and Miss Kay — often in greater measure than can be found in those much more fortunate.
In the film industry, we often celebrate the creative tools of the trade used by filmmakers to craft their work. We give awards and prizes at film festivals and awards shows for everything from acting like someone else, for amazing use of archival footage, for being particularly cinematic, for creative use of animation, special effects and motion graphics.
Soltani and Wimbush have used thoughtful craft in directing and producing this character-driven documentary film. The most notable tool they seem to have used in their craft? Love.
There is love in every frame. The kind of unconditional love of family; the love that accepts you exactly as you are and exactly as you’re not, and loves you anyway. The kind of love that can’t solve your problems but can bear witness to you and your life, and knows that no matter what, as long as you’re here, it’s a life worth living.
The kind of love that knows that a homeless person isn’t only homeless; that person may also love to sing, or plant flowers, or be an animal lover. That person may be an environmentalist, or a fitness fanatic, or may just be really, really funny.
Dogtown Redemption understands all this, and tells a story that invites us to pull in closer, and sit for a spell. Someday, somewhere, there just might be festival award laurels specially made to recognize tenderness, humanism, and care in both films and in civilization. At that festival, for its thoughtful witness to private lives in sacred moments, Dogtown Redemption would probably take home the Jury Prize.
Rahdi Taylor is the Film Fund Director at the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. She works worldwide to find, cultivate and finance documentary films of contemporary relevance. Films supported have included Cartel Land, Dirty Wars, Rich Hill, The Square, Chuck Norris vs. Communism, and CITIZENFOUR.