To much of the world, the arrival of the street sweepers signal the beginning of a new day, but after spending nights with his co-collaborator Sam Mantell filming the homeless community in Los Angeles for their new film “Disco’d,” Matthew Siretta saw something different, watching as the belongings of the people he had come to know intimately were being swept away without consideration if they didn’t have the wherewithal to hold onto them.
“While we were shooting the clean-up at the end of the film, I started to realize things I’m not sure I would’ve been able to realize had I just been a pedestrian walking by,” says Siretta, of the film which takes its title from the strong sense of disorientation felt by the homeless. “I don’t think I ever would’ve been able to make these connections and have this emotional connection to a city crew cleaning up a street and I remember the feeling I had after we shot that, [knowing] this was the end of the film.”
That may have been when Siretta and Mantell decided to put down the camera, but if the aim was sparking a conversation about the tent cities that have sprung up around Los Angeles and other urban centers in growing numbers over the past decade, “Disco’d” serves as a provocative start, embedding with an assortment of people who have found themselves on the streets, whether because of drug abuse, mental illness or simply bad luck. Unfolding over the course of one evening (with footage collected by the two-man crew over the course of many evenings), the film presents its subjects without judgment as they make a life for themselves with no resources but their wits, following some as they create a shelter for themselves by the side of the freeway, others who collect plastic and glass bottles to redeem for cash and a few who scrape together enough coins for a coffee to keep warm past midnight.
Tough but rewarding, “Disco’d” breaks free of abstract considerations of what can be done about the homeless crisis to depict the raw reality of the issues the community faces on a nightly basis and while one can immediately see the hardships, their resilience and spirited personalities are allowed to come to the fore in the time that Siretta and Mantell spend with them. With the film recently opening in the city where it was shot, the duo spoke about how the desire to make any film led them to creating an important one and how they approached the subject with sensitivity through the techniques they used to capture it.
How did this come about?
Matthew Siretta: We met each other in 2014 and we were really eager to make a film. I just moved out here and didn’t know anyone and we naturally started talking a lot about homelessness. It seemed like [a subject] we could just making something about right away without much backing, without much equipment, and we knew we wanted to take a more intimate approach to this growing juxtaposition between extreme wealth and poverty that we’re seeing more and more in L.A.
Sam Mantell: We want to make a narrative film ultimately, so we were spending a lot of time together trying to suss that out, but just driving around [Los Angeles], it was like, “Well, we don’t need money and a script to start filming on the street, so we started doing it, and it became pretty clear pretty quickly that we just needed to keep doing it. So we shot and shot and shot and learned as we went and the approach evolved and we just began to edit.
Matthew Siretta: And that’s where it started coming together.
You obviously had to shoot over the course of many nights, but it unfolds as if it’s one. Was that timeframe always in mind?
Sam Mantell: Yeah, it’s funny because I remember a specific moment where we were editing and we were questioning whether or not we should try to make it seem like one night or not. But we didn’t really have a choice because all the footage is at night, so it’s just how you feel.
Matthew Siretta: A lot of it was actually because we had full day-time jobs and were kind of forced to shoot 90% of the film at night, but we liked the idea of that. It goes hand-in-hand with the subject matter and we learned throughout making this film that a lot of these people are really living at night. I’ll speak for myself, but when regular society is out and about, going to work and this and that, I feel like if I were homeless, it’d be a very difficult part of the day to exist because you’re around all these people who are leading healthy [lives] making money and looking good, and ignoring you, so it’s almost as if you really have a place at night.
Sam Mantell: Yeah, the nighttime setting provided a much more intimate venue for us because the rest of society is gone. If we were out there during the day on the corner of Vermont and Beverly with a camera and a microphone, it would’ve been totally different because people play to the camera and civilians want to get involved.
Was there a period you were cultivating relationships before turning the camera on and figuring out who to follow?
Sam Mantell: Yeah, we got comfortable with the camera on the street between [myself and Matthew] first and then when we started developing more the direction that he wanted to take the picture, we were more deliberate about the individuals that we filmed with. We spent time developing relationships with communities at large first and then learning which individuals within that community were receptive to working with us. It was a pretty natural process. You’ve got to earn people’s trust before [filming], especially because it’s dangerous, so we couldn’t just walk onto a street with a camera and expect to start filming.
What was it like figuring out how the camera would operate in that space, given the various sensitivities involved and getting the distinctive aesthetic that you do?
Matthew Siretta: We wanted to keep it as intimate as possible and make it feel like we weren’t making a movie as much as possible. We didn’t want to be shining a light in their face, so it’s all natural lighting and of course it’s very dark at night, so we primarily shot with this very wide, very low light lens for most of it. It was pretty barebones – one shotgun mic, one camera, and one camera on the shoulder rig.
Sam Mantell: Yeah, it’s that indie filmmaker-y ethos where the less resources you have, the more creative you are. It was important to be low profile and with a mic and a camera, we know we can make at least something, so it was about tuning the aspects within that to get exactly what we want and that lens worked perfectly for the situations that we were in.
There’s a really striking shot when you follow Lou into a 7/11, looking up at him nearly the entire time as he’s walking from the street into the store, and it’s particularly interesting when you go from seeing what little he has in his tent to the overabundance of the store. Is that something you were keeping an eye out for?
Matthew Siretta: If you notice, that shot started at a different angle and then it slowly moves under and looks up at him, so that was just a decision I made while I was shooting it in the moment. If I were to try to analyze it, I would say I was trying to see his face and I wanted to capture the sound better, but because it’s a moving shot, it’s hard for Sam to be operating the shotgun mic [while moving], so I had the mic on the camera and [since Lou’s] hunched over, so I didn’t want to lose the quality of the sound and I really wanted to clearly capture his face. And I didn’t want to be looking down on him with the camera — in general, we tried to visually position the camera as much as possible so it’s level with or kind of looking up at them because in a way it’s like we don’t want to be looking down at these people, not just literally, but also metaphorically. We want to be giving them the stage.
Sam Mantell: When I saw [Matthew] doing it, I thought that’s a great idea, and it wasn’t until editing we honed in how interesting that [scene] is. If anything, we picked up on the fact that there’s basically a give-and-take economy, like a trade economy on the street. People’s possessions are so important to them and that’s why they carry them around with them. They set up shop on the sidewalk and they make a home out of it. Their home is defined by their belongings, so we saw in that the remnants of American consumerism still affecting these people even they’re totally outside of that because they don’t have an income, they don’t have a shelter. They don’t really have belongings. All they have is what they’ve found or what they’ve taken and in a small amount of circumstances what they’ve purchased, like we see with Lou, it’s just food. That becomes interesting when you meditate on it, but we didn’t set out to capture that.
It seemed like Julie, who you can see being relocated, was the person you really kept up with. What made her stand out?
Sam Mantell: She was one of the first people that we met, so throughout the process of filming, we intentionally would return to her. And she would call us on the phone quite often – every day – so we kept up with her and she was housed at one point and we were happy about that and then that started turning sour, so we were concerned for her as a person, first and foremost, but then once when it looked pretty clear that she wanted to leave [the housing facility], we knew we wanted to capture that, so it was just life playing out how it does.
Matthew Siretta: And of anyone, she was maybe the most “Disco’d” because she was sober — she wasn’t on drugs — and she wanted to get off the street, and then gets off the street and that wasn’t working out, so then she has to deal with getting back to the street. Her life was changing so much, and if you even go further back, she never thought she would live on the street, so she was really experiencing what it means and what it feels like to be “disco’d” and we just had to follow that all the way through.