I had the pleasure of meeting the director and subject of Homme Less, Thomas Wirthensohn and Mark Reay respectively, after the Sundance/Gates Foundation Shorts Selection and the panel discussion on homelessness, which followed. Both had great things to say during the discussion, and were just as amicable at the film’s first screening. I was also able to meet the director of Queen Mimi before it screened that evening, and sensed the labor of love that the film was for Yaniv Rokah.
In a sort of coast-to-coast double screening, the two films portrayed two very different stories of people who are experiencing homelessness, 54 year old Mark Reay in New York and 88 year old Mimi in Los Angeles. The crazy thing about it is that neither of them seems to be suffering through homelessness, but rather experiencing it as they otherwise live happy lives. Both of them welcome the idea of more secure and comfortable shelter, but spend most of their days doing the work that they enjoy, which sometimes comes with pay, and doing their best to help other people out.
In the case of Mark Reay in Homme Less, I personally sensed a kindred spirit in that his experience of homelessness is largely chosen, as was mine when I decided to travel America and write The Rucksack Letters and when I decided to live a year in Sarasota without using money. For Mark, a burgeoning fashion photographer, actor, and former model, he simply didn’t see the logic in spending 1,000$ a month to rent shared living space when he lives so much of his life on the streets of New York. But from personal experience as someone who has lived outside the norm, I can agree with Mark’s addendum to Joseph Campbell’s maxim, “Follow your bliss… but be prepared to live your nightmare.”
Queen Mimi offers up quite a different story. Married to a religious man who forbade her to work for 29 years, when Mimi decided to leave her husband after discovering his extra-marital affair, she found herself with a van, a dog, and no marketable skills for employment. She lived in her van for awhile, until she called the police after an attempted break-in, and they impounded it because she could not afford to pay for her license and registration, leaving her completely destitute. Years later, after sleeping many nights on the streets, she started showing up at the Fox Laundry in Santa Monica, and on one stormy night, they let her sleep inside. Since then, she’s become a regular fixture, and somewhat of a celebrity in the neighborhood.
What’s interesting about both portraits is that although both of these people are experiencing one of the most dreaded situations in America, and one that seems to becoming more likely for many, they both live fabulously enjoyable lives. Mark spends his days on fashion shoots, movie sets, and all about town, while Mimi has a great support system of friends who’ve grown to know her and red carpet Hollywood events with her actor friends Zach Galifianakis and Renee Zelweger. The film forces us to ask the question as to why people, especially lovable people (which is most people when you take the time to listen to their stories), must suffer through such deplorable conditions when they’re just trying to make a good life for themselves.
In Mark’s case, he knows that he needs a good kick in the ass, and he asks for it in the film, yet he still seems content with doing what he loves to come up with his 1500$ of monthly fixed costs, including gym membership, health insurance, SAG dues, food, and alcohol. Some may say he should “get a real job” and “work harder”, but is that really the kind of society we should be striving for, one in which we can only be appreciated by laboring for money? How do we then account for people like Mimi, who does fold and fluff laundry 7 days a week, but who couldn’t possibly put in enough hours to cover the expenses our societal experiments throw at her.
Fortunately for Mimi, she has a rich actor friend like Zach Galifianakis to rent her an apartment with furniture provided by Renee Zelweger. And I think that Homme Less is such an excellently produced film that it will most likely generate enough buzz for Mark Reay that he will get some more serious work as an actor, and the sacrifice he made by exposing his secret and losing his 5 year sleeping arrangement will offer some advancement in his own hero’s journey.
Nevertheless, there are millions more of these stories, in America, Sarasota, and throughout the industrialized world, as people find themselves forced to weave their way through the complications of survival in an antiquated economic system which has been infected with the virus of valuing money more than people.
I highly recommend both films. Homme Less screens next on Monday, April 13 at 4:30pm. Queen Mimi screens on Sunday, April 19 at 1:30pm.