Peeling back the labels

Locally produced film addresses the stigma of homelessness


The use of labels to define a person or a group of people can create a situation devoid of empathy. The stereotypes involved allow us to skip over the person who is being labeled and place them in a box that strips away their humanity. This is especially true with the preconceptions involved with the stigma of homelessness.

Homeless obscures more than it clarifies,” said Butte County filmmaker Christopher Allan Smith. “Homelessness make it sound like it’s one homogenous experience.”

In an effort to move past assumptions and get at the unique stories of individuals, Smith filmed The Lives Behind The Labels, a locally produced documentary that features interviews with people who’ve experienced homelessness in Butte County. The 40-minute film shows at the Pageant Theatre tonight (April 4, 6:30 p.m.; one night only).

The documentary by Smith—who has made a name for himself with his “Every 15 Minutes” spots (winners of multiple Northern California Emmy Awards)—is one part of the multi-discipline Labels project that was funded last year by the California Arts Council as part of its California Creative Corps program. With the help of local organizers at the Upstate Community Enhancement Foundation and the Nevada County Arts Council, $326,000 of the $60 million dollars in funding came to Butte County.

The Labels group was one of eight recipients in the county. The project debuted last month with a two-week interactive exhibit at the Museum of Northern California Art. Chico artist Christine MacShane and writing instructor/media specialist Dori Moura are the other two organizers of the project, and the exhibit featured the fruits of arts and writing workshops they conducted at the Jesus Center, Genesis Pallet shelter, 6th St. Center for Youth and the Boys and Girls Club of the North Valley. A version of that exhibit is now on display in the lobby of the Chico Municipal building through the month of April after which it will move on to the Butte County Office of Education.

“This exhibit showcases the basic humanity, many times lost in political debate, shared between people labeled residents and those labeled homeless,” MacShane explained in the exhibit’s press materials.

For the documentary, Smith acts as the narrator, providing an openhearted presence as his camera enters the individual worlds of the interviewees as they tell their stories of how they ended up living on the streets. Of course, none of their circumstances are exactly the same, and from the young Camp Fire refugee running from physically abusive parents to Debra, a woman who lost her job, home and good health all at the same time, all of those interviewed ended up living outside because they had no other choice.

And as Smith’s narration continues to earnestly ask questions, he wonders about his own life’s path as a Camp Fire survivor who lost his home. What if he didn’t have a support system in place and the losses continued to pile up?

“As I was talking to more people, I was seeing reflections of experiences that I’d had,” he admitted.

The version of the Labels documentary showing at the Pageant will have extra footage from interviews included, and after the showing there will be a discussion with the project’s organizers. Eventually, after looking into possible showings at festivals and on public television, Smith said that the film will be uploaded YouTube with the goal of reaching as many people as possible.

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