“Mike the busker” did one last tune in front of Vancouver’s busy Waterfront Station. Then, wan and emaciated, he slowly collapsed to the ground, as pedestrians hurried past. None stopped to check whether he was alive or dead. Among them was a cleaner who emerged from the building, carefully swept around the busker’s lifeless body with dustpan and broom, then went back inside.
It’s a stunning moment in the Vancouver indie film Hit ‘n Strum. Yet those who ignored Mike were not actors. They were ordinary Vancouverites, unaware the scene was being captured by unobtrusive cameras across the street.
The well-received movie, which began its run at the Fifth Avenue Cinema just as the city was conducting its annual homeless count this month, poses uncomfortable questions about attitudes to the less fortunate we see on our mean streets every day.
Spearheaded by veteran stuntman Kirk Caouette, who wrote, directed, produced, acted and did the music, Hit ‘n Strum also comes at a time when many in the Downtown Eastside feel they are being pushed aside by creeping gentrification and those who want them out of the area.
The plot centres on the complex relationship that evolves between Mike, a homeless street musician played by Mr. Caouette, and Stephanie, an affluent lawyer, after she hits him with her car.
Mr. Caouette said the movie was inspired by legendary Vancouver busker Andre Girard, who has since died. He would see Mr. Girard playing for long stretches on the street, without earning a dime. Yet his music was beautiful, Mr. Caouette said.
Many scenes were shot outside on the street, often with a small, barely noticeable crew. Those making the movie not only got to know the down-and-out residents of the benighted area, they experienced their invisibility first hand, since Mike and his equally scruffy friends hung out in character, busking outside a Starbucks in Gastown.
“Dressed like we were, looking like we were, people looked right through us,” said Dana Pemberton, who played Mike’s bongo-playing buddy. “I think it makes a real commentary on just how afraid people are to accept that sector of life exists in our society. They just want it to be invisible.”
Michelle Harrison, who plays Stephanie, confessed she had fallen into that habit herself. “I’d become immune to people on the street. There they are, asking for money, and you get used to just walking by.”
By the end of filming, Ms. Harrison had a different view. “It was a total eye-opener for me. You make assumptions about people, but put your head up and look around,” she advised. “Your initial reaction is not always what you see. Everyone has a story.”
As she got to know some of the homeless, she found herself waking up and wondering how they had spent the night, especially after a heavy rain.
“We love to complain about the rain, but all the little things like that don’t matter much when you know someone who’s living outside,” she said.
Nothing had as profound an effect on the crew as what happened in front of the Waterfront Station with the sweeper. Mr. Caouette is still shaken by the experience.
“I lay there with my eyes closed, and I’m feeling this broom, and I’m thinking, ‘No way. Is this really happening?” he recalled. “The guy swept around my whole body. And we got it all on camera. It’s so heavy-handed, it’s something I never would have written, but it happened. You hate to frame the world in that dark way, but it’s real. There’s no denying it.”
Perhaps no one knows the streets and alleys of the Downtown Eastside better than city hall’s heroic advocate for the homeless, Judy Graves. Ms. Graves said attitudes have actually improved toward the homeless as outsiders learn to talk to people on the street. But she doesn’t dismiss the experience of the Hit ‘n Strum folks.
“People still tend not to see [the homeless], and if they do see them, they tend to see them as not fully human,” Ms. Graves said.
Those on the street witness these attitudes every day. Sitting outside a downtown beer store on Friday, reading a book and enjoying the sunshine with a cup for change in front of him, Gary, who declined to provide his last name, said he’s used to people streaming by without a glance. It rarely bothers him. “It’s their prerogative. What can you do?”
A block away, Jody, also without a last name, cupped his hand for spare cash. “A lot of people just go right by you. Some are pretty snobbish,” he said. “It makes me angry.”
Both men have tales of lives gone wrong, eased then ruined by booze. But the homeless shouldn’t be stereotyped, both Ms. Graves and the filmmakers say. “They are part of our community,” Ms. Graves said.
Ironically, Mr. Caouette thinks Hit ‘n Strum itself was stereotyped. Many in the business felt a locally produced movie about Vancouver couldn’t possibly be any good, particularly one about the Downtown Eastside, he said. “They were pretty jaded about it.”
Film festivals, including Toronto and, yes, Vancouver, said no. “That was pretty devastating, when even our hometown festival wouldn’t accept it,” he said.
Hit ‘n Strum finally premiered at last year’s Canadian Film Fest, where Mr. Caouette copped best actor and the film’s Pieter Stathis won best cinematography. From there, the movie was shown at the Shanghai International Film Festival, playing to full houses, and the Whistler Film Festival, where it was runner-up for the audience award. It has now been extended for a third week at Fifth Avenue.
“It’s been challenging to get people to take a chance on something they don’t know about, but the audience reaction has been unbelievable,” Mr. Caouette said. “What’s also gratifying is that people are leaving the theatre and saying, ‘I’ll never walk by a street musician or homeless person again.’”
For Dana Pemberton, meanwhile, his time acting in the movie was not only poignant but personal. Ten years ago, he lost his older brother, Dave, to those same city streets. “I was down there, all ragged, like I’m one of the street guys sleeping in an alleyway, and I’m looking for him. I kept thinking I was going to see him. But I never did.”