March 26, 2018

Despite its excursions abroad, SKID ROW MARATHON is rooted to place. It names a neighborhood in its title; this neighborhood becomes a metonymy for rock bottom. There are beautiful aerial shots that follow the gridded street patterns on the runners’ routes. We may leave momentarily or, better yet, for good, but Skid Row remains with us. It’s the site of our low points, but it’s also the substrate of our life recovery.

A formal rectilinearity contrasts well with how the events of addiction play out, particularly how progress is seldom made on a straight vector from point A to point B and beyond. Instead, we are shown the loops, hitches, spasms, and outbursts that go along with addiction. The resolutions of one chapter lead to the hard lessons of the next.

There are many scenes in this documentary dedicated to the act of conferring dignity–on oneself, on a stranger, on a loved one. We learn that different people and situations require different methods of this conductive compassion–some may be more self-inclined, but no one is capable of doing it completely solo. Collaboration becomes a survival strategy.

The New England premiere of SKID ROW MARATHON will take place on Monday, March 26 at 6pm at CinemaSalem.  Mark Hayes responded to some questions ahead of the screening via email with SFF Blog contributor Rebecca DeLucia.

RD: How would you say the experience of directing this documentary changed your notions of dignity and its importance to documentary-making?

MH: We were running with the runners for about six weeks before we started filming; we thought it would be better that they get to know us first. If you’re ever in that situation, it’s not something that you share with ease; you don’t want people invading your privacy. So we tried to be careful to build trust with the runners. First we established that bond, became part of the program.

Now, I became aware of one of the runners’ legal status–that he was on parole and may face time in prison for breaching the conditions of parole, a minor crime he had committed. We’d been running together for a month or so, finally I asked him outright: “Hey, what was your [original] crime?” Honestly, I was expecting him to say robbery, or drug possession, but then he said he was on parole for murder, and I was taken aback, to say the least.

It took me several months to get my head around the fact that this person with whom I had become buddies had committed that crime; taken someone’s life. We still ran together, but I would think of his crime every time we were together. This went on for a while, then about a year later, this guy was arrested in violation of his parole. There was a chance he’d had to serve out his life sentence. And I remember when we found out he was back in jail, I couldn’t sleep. It dawned on me that I cared because I had, over the time it took to make this documentary, started to care about him as a person–and I believed at this point that not only is he better off not going to jail, but that also society would be better off not having to fund the life sentence of this person who had reformed himself. Also that I would be better off because he’s my friend! And I saw that he was doing good things, and he was trying to make amends for what he’d done as a young person. And that’s when I realized I had changed. Over time, I realized the documentary had changed me.

RD: So you’re interested in documentary as catharsis?

MH: Oh, definitely.

RD: Did the group dynamic of this film introduce any formal imperatives or political choices?

MH: [Gabi and I] were thinking there are so many issues… there is a whole confluence of factors that contribute to homelessness in Los Angeles. Working in an area such as Skid Row, you never get used to the reality of these thousands of humans living, sleeping, doing everything in the garbage and on the streets. You never get used to it. It stays with you. And we’re done with the project, but we still go there, to the Midnight Mission, to run and celebrate birthdays. Recently, I went there, needed a shot of a sign, and I had to walk about a block or so by myself with a camera, I was literally stepping over bodies ankle-deep in trash.

The political imperative you’re asking about–it’s that this is clearly out of control, and something must be done. Here is Judge Mitchell, he sees this intractable problem: homelessness in LA. He’s not resolving the entire problem–by the time of this documentary’s release, there were 58,000 people living on the street in Los Angeles–but he sees the same thing that everyone else sees, and he’s doing something unique, constructive, and simple:  starting a running club. And he’s changing the lives of the runners. It’s better to be the small part of the solution to a huge problem, than it is to just sit on your hands. Our hope is that people will watch this documentary and take action in their own communities.

RD: The labor of documentary-making is often emotionally fraught, as you have described, and this is a particularly hard portrait of people coming and going. What are some difficulties of conveying this without being didactic or instructive during points of tension? Did you cry at any point during production?

MH: We did cry a few times, when people relapsed. You thought the person you were running with was doing so much better, and then all of a sudden you wouldn’t see them the next week. When one of the runners disappeared, he was back on the street. We went looking for him. When we found him, he looked completely different. I asked, “What happened?” we had seen him a week before, we had just celebrated his one year of sobriety, and when I asked, he looked right at me, hesitated, and said “I got lonely, and I took a drink.” And I just really felt for him. It is just so simple, why he was throwing it all away. That made me cry. What moved me was the Judge and the connections he made, real connections. And that is part of our message: the difference made can be as simple, and as challenging, as becoming a friend; giving someone a chance, and seeing what they do with it.

Next up on their docket, Mark and Gabi hope to produce a romantic comedy based on their own story: meeting in the GDR, falling in love, and leaving together for the US after the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

SKID ROW MARATHON screens at CinemaSalem on Monday, March 26 at 6pm and can be purchased at The Salem Film Fest Box Office or via the SFF website here: http://salemfilmfest.com/2018/films/skid-row-marathon/

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