Serving Second Chances begins with a gorgeous shot of the Dallas skyline before the camera pans down to a man sleeping on a bench in front of City Hall. During a Robert Johnson lookalike contest at The Stewpot, guitarist Gerald Williams showed up out of nowhere and won first prize. His promise as a guitarist had been derailed by crack addiction. When documentarian Alan Govenar interviewed Williams, he asked him where he was living. Williams explained he went many places, but was guarded about where he actually slept. Eventually he showed the filmmaker the bench he slept on from 3-6 a.m., in between police patrols.
Govenar started working with The Stewpot three years ago on the reconstruction of 508 Park, a historical building in Dallas where Robert Johnson recorded the majority of his music. He also conceptualized the upcoming Museum of Street Culture for the project, a museum he will curate as founding director that will expand the outreach of The Stewpot with a focus on artwork by the homeless. He was asked if he wanted to make a film about the museum and how it will interface with the resource center for Dallas' homeless and at-risk individuals. “It’s a place of safety,” says Govenar, of The Stewpot. “It’s a temporary home in the world of homelessness.” 508 Park had its heyday during the 1930s, when everyone was touched by homelessness, displacement and dislocation during The Great Depression.
“In today’s world, the fastest growing homeless population is the family homeless,” says Govenar. One couple is stable in the beginning of the film, even gets married at The Stewpot. But after her husband goes on a binge, the wife ends up visiting him in the county jail. In a particularly moving scene, another woman struggles to make ends meet while taking care of her mother, who suffers from dementia.
Right away he had trouble narrowing the film’s focus. Initially it's about the creation of the Museum of Street Culture, but it gradually hones in on daily operations at The Stewpot. The more deeply he observed the services provided daily by The Stewpot, the more he realized what a remarkable place it is. The film seamlessly follows its principle subjects over a challenging span of two and a half years. These individuals are front and center, with The Stewpot serving as the core that brings them all together.
The art program at The Stewpot, started by artist Pamela Nelson in 1975, particularly struck Govenar. He talked to different artists in the program who worked in the open arts studio and immediately decided to focus on human qualities instead of scratching the surface of what it means to be homeless. Govenar wanted to show the journey of their lives and how it evolves over time. One of the artists, Velietta Dickens Rogers, contracted HIV after being raped as a teenager. After becoming a shut-in, she discovered the art program, which brought her long-sought peace.
Serving Second Chances is focused on the exemplary work and services provided by The Stewpot. But the film is also about homelessness more generally. The film centers on Dallas, but could be about any city in the country. Each person in the film is homeless for a different reason. Many are itinerant and localized, but this film shows all sorts of contributing factors, defying all stereotypes. One woman is an engineer, who admits that after having a negative view of homeless people she found herself a victim of circumstance. After coming to Dallas, she lost her job. Then a drunk driver killed her husband and daughter on Mother’s Day.
The cinematography from Didier Dorant is extraordinary. Much of the footage was shot with a handheld camera, but you would never guess it by the steady shots of street altercations and arrests. Govenar’s son, producer Shy Guy, known for fusing several different genres of music, provides the film’s straightforward hip-hop score. “We used a lot of his beats because his music seemed so appropriate to the subject matter,” says Govenar. After the theatrical version is released this fall, a shorter version of the film will be released for a November 6 television broadcast on KERA's Frame of Mind series. Distribution of independent documentary films is tough and competitive. “We’re living in the golden age of the feature-length documentary,” says Govenar. Homelessness is a tough issue to address, one that everyone is aware of, but difficult to understand. Many people are afraid of the homeless. But Serving Second Chances is about changing perceptions of the issue.
The film explores the tension between the aesthetic and the informational. Govenar uses a very specific pacing that is not as slow as television or typical of documentaries, with its elaborate presentation and high-speed editing. The film is lyrical and takes the viewer into a deeper sense of reality as events unfold. Tackling the subject of homelessness from many different angles, the documentary provokes a visceral response. “Part of what draws me into making films is that I stand in awe of the world I’m experiencing,” says Govenar.
Govenar has now completed a couple dozen films. “It’s really been a journey,” he says. “For me the biggest joy is in the making of the work.”
Serving Second Chances will be shown on Thursday, October 15, at Angelika Film Center.