Film series brings faces of poverty into focus

 In Eradicating Poverty

Eight films are submitted in inaugural contest.

BY NANCY MCLAUGHLIN, Greensboro News & Record

GREENSBORO — The grandmotherly woman stares at the camera.

“Homeless people are just like you,” she says calmly. “Some of us have just had hard roads.”

Then she turns to the keys of a piano at a local homeless shelter and pounds out Beethoven.

“What it did for me, it echoed what she said: ‘We are people, too,’ ” said Frankie Day, director of the theater arts program at N.C. A&T and a judge for the 2010 Copycents Student Film Festival. “Here she is, a beautiful piano player.”

The homeless woman’s story was part of the film “What’s Behind the Sign?” the winning entry in the film festival, which takes an unfiltered look at poverty.

The film was one of eight submissions by students and graduates of the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, an organization that seeks to empower people through education and job training.

The inaugural contest, through its Copycents video production division, offers these students the chance to tell stories that rarely would be told — including theirs. The winning team got $1,000.

The Rev. Odell Cleveland, the nonprofit’s president and chief executive officer, wants to put poverty on the radar of the middle class audience. He tried to do this with a pool of judges that included city officials, company executives and career professionals.

“This festival gives people who don’t always have access and voice to say the face behind poverty is a human face, just like you and me,” Cleveland said.

The entries were screened Thursday at the Carousel Theater. Judges scored the content of the story and the production values of each video.

The entries ranged from four to 10 minutes.

“I want to quit this so bad,” a dejected homeless man named “Preston” says in an interview for “What’s Behind the Sign?” while holding a sign on a street corner asking for help. “It’s so overwhelming. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

For their entries, some teams used actual interviews — holding a mirror up to the city. Crews followed some of the people holding signs to homeless camps, where one man showed them a makeshift tent made out of cardboard and sturdy black garbage bags.

“Bobby” described spending two hours sitting in the rain taking what amounted to a shower in his clothes, using the pounding rain and soap to wash the clothes he wore. Then he would go back into the tent to change, hanging the wet clothes to dry.

April McNeil, who came to the screening with one of the judges, found his words heartbreaking.

“It’s gotten to the point where people look at homeless people holding up signs only as a scam,” she said. “You saw the other side.”

Another team offered a laugh-a-minute comedic approach, asking, “Why is it so expensive to be poor?” While joking about water being the poor man’s champagne, the talk also broaches why someone would sell their food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar.

“My thing is to keep this roof over our head,” one woman admits.

In “Down But Not Out,” actors portray a job applicant who impresses his interviewer with his resume — until she discovers a felony conviction. When he leaves, she tosses his resume into the trash.

As he becomes more desperate to feed his children, an old connection gives him a bag of cocaine to sell. He takes it but pauses while the film flashes back seven months to when he walked out of jail. He gives the drugs back to the dealer — for now.

“You all ain’t gonna help,” the drug dealer says to the camera. “Don’t worry. I got him.”

It fades to black and thunderous applause.

Welfare Reform sought grants and donations to buy film-making equipment and its own in-house studio. It also has a video production staff.

Students can use the equipment and what they’ve learned to start money-making ventures of their own, such as teaching others how to get into filmmaking, Cleveland said.

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