I found a link to this film through the blog Kick to Kill (which is an excellent piece of online periodical). Since the blog’s author only put up the first eight minutes I believed it was a short film when it’s actually a feature length documentary. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into but found myself immersed in this completely messed up documentary about homeless teenagers in Seattle, Washington. If there’s a film demonstrating America’s class divide and un-Christian stance it’s Streetwise.
At the most the film follows a dozen teenagers and their exploits on the streets. It starts with Rat, a panhandler and all around scammer jumping off a bridge into the water. Shortly afterwards it follows Tiny, a young prostitute (probably 13 or 14 years old) who goes on multiple “dates” each day. From there the film introduces other boys and girls; unfortunately I can’t remember their names but the girls are all prostitutes and the boys are working scams on a daily basis – they panhandle, dumpster dive, run restaurant scams (such as calling in a pizza from a payphone and eventually getting it from the dumpster behind the restaurant after the delivery goes askew), and so forth. It’s a hard life and many of these children seem older than their age but they also show their immaturity repeatedly. Basically, like the title suggests, they’re Streetwise but their experiences only pertain to a specific portion of the world; they’re clueless about other aspects of existence because their only experiences are limited.
Almost all the girls in this documentary have left home because of stepfathers who are abusive towards both them and their mothers. Are they retaliating because their home life is very tough or is it because it’s their only option? Is it a combination of both? Unfortunately I don’t have the answers and neither does this documentary, which is actually quite objective (even though I believe objectivity isn’t real), showing the lives of these teens as they are and not through any filters. The shots are long sometimes and it seems like the editing is only there for the sake of continuity (most events in real life are actually quite dull and watching a teen boy at a free clinic walk from one side of the room to the other isn’t worth watching).
The most heart wrenching portion of the film involves Dewayne, one of Rat’s friends, who killed himself while locked up in jail for selling pot. His funeral, which was featured, was attended by his father (accompanied by two prison guards) and a few social workers who worked with Dewayne in the past. It’s definitely a heartbreaking way to conclude the film (especially the shot of Dewayne positioned in the coffin). He was cremated and his ashes were scattered.
What’s really striking about Streetwise is what it’s saying about America. For a nation which prides itself as a beacon of hope, a charitable nation where Christian values and rhetoric about altruism fly constantly it sure doesn’t seem that was in Streetwise. These children are a shining example of capitalism’s negative aspects – it simple isn’t profitable to help them beyond the minimal means shown in the film. But charity and social welfare isn’t exactly a profit venture; it’s a non-profit action with the betterment of humanity at its core. Streetwise demonstrates what happens when concern for people is left behind, when the demands of a class based economic system reign supreme. For America to be what it claims to – a caring, sympathetic country where the welfare of its citizens (especially children) is at the core of its ideology – it has to make the conditions depicted in Streetwise extinct. Until then the men and women behind the curtain are just paying lip service.
Here is the first part of Streetwise. The VHS is long out of print and a proper DVD version hasn’t been released yet. The other ten parts are available via Youtube and you can find them yourself. =)