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Great Speeches a powerful local documentary
Great Speeches a powerful local documentary
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Great Speeches from a Dying World
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I remember watching Wild Kingdom with my dad when I was kid and seeing a lion blithely carry off a wildebeest calf despite the dramatic protests of the mother. I was horrified that the filmmaker didn't intervene. My dad shrugged and said, "Boy, that's just nature."

Long before I understood what the "Prime Directive" meant in Trekkie lingo, I understood that Marlin Perkins was not there to save every wildebeest calf from the clutches of a hungry lion. He was there to document how lions hunt wildebeests.

This is the dilemma of the documentary filmmaker, especially when his homeless subjects are living dangerous, unpredictable, and self-destructive lives.

In his sophomore effort, local documentarian Linas Phillips addresses his problem with the opening voice-over. "I never thought I'd become friends with a guy like this." A couple of minutes later an angst-ridden Phillips says, "I'd see them sleeping in doorways, waiting in food lines, getting kicked off of benches; then I'd get into my car and drive home to a nice warm bed."

These are strange moments coming so early in the film, a sort of oblique disavowal (a specialty of many Seattleites) of all that is to come. And it may be a bit misleading. In the end, Phillips handles his subjects with dignity and grace, much more dignity and grace than one expects given this odd, though honest, opening statement. It feels self-consciously inaccurate as if he really wanted to say, "I'm not going to save these people, but someone must tell their story."

And that is exactly what documentarians do: They tell stories, even the stories we don't want to know, the stories we pretend don't exist.

I came to Great Speeches from a Dying World with a mixture of hope and cynicism. When the locals make good movies, it adds texture to the Seattle film scene. However, when you tell me I'm going to see a documentary about homeless folks I tend to shrink back like a cold scrotum.

But Phillips gets things mostly right even if the documentary could be a bit shorter. He takes a subject that's a tough sell at best and turns it into surprisingly insightful film through the use of one fascinating and simple device. The people in the film (many of whom I recognized) recite some of the best-known and eloquent speeches of the Western world. The result is far from simple but amazingly thought provoking given their circumstances.

They recite speeches from a diverse list of cultural and political sources including John Donne, JFK, Chief Sealth, Sojourner Truth, and Jesus Christ (no "H" initial present in the ending credits). The speeches are delivered in simple and unaffected styles that allow a haunting inner humanity to escape from each person. At times the viewer gets beyond the veneer and sees not just a homeless person, but a person with dreams, dreams of buying food at a grocery store, of having a dog, or of living in a home.

There are no easy solutions to homelessness and Phillips is careful to acknowledge the complicity of his subjects in their circumstances. But it's still maddening to hear some nitwit piously say things like, "The city should do more to help the homeless." This is the type of platitude that drives me nuts. I want to reply, "No shit, really? Why hasn't anyone thought of that before and why haven't you run for office with dynamic ideas like that?"

But the problem is much deeper than this. If it were up to me, I'd say we should give every homeless person a camera and tell them to go make movies. Telling stories, your own or those of others, can be an empowering experience. In fact, it makes me wonder how this documentary changed the lives of the speechmakers.
 

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