In one scene of the new film We R Here, Billy Pearce, an unhoused man, stands near the Home Depot in East Oakland, holding a sign asking for money.
The cellphone camera used to shoot the scene is set up next to him, positioned such that the audience shares Pearce’s point of view. We see a man approach us, offering a quesadilla, which Pearce graciously accepts and says he’ll share with his wife. Next, we watch as a woman comes up close and says a prayer. Pearce thanks her, too.
There’s been no shortage of films, videos, photos, and articles trying to tell the stories of people living on the Bay Area’s streets, hoping the human narratives will encourage more empathy or policy changes. We R Here contributes to this body of work but does something different: It tells the story from the perspective of the unhoused people at the center of the crisis. Not through a handful of quotes or photos, but truly—from their perspective.
The three segments that comprise the 55-minute We R Here are all shot by the unhoused people they feature. Director Kyung Lee gave the filmmakers cellphones, SD cards, guidance on using the devices, and tips like how to narrate what’s happening as they’re filming.
“This film, for me, more than anything is raising awareness of how we live out there,” said filmmaker-subject Maria Fuentes at The New Parkway Theater, where We R Here premiered this week. “People are trying to work for something positive.”
What resulted is three distinct and unusually intimate portraits. There is Pearce, his wife Jennifer, and their numerous dogs, who move from city to city searching for work and trying to escape the impact of years-old trauma. There’s James “DJ Nyce” Goodwin, the man living out of his VW Beetle in San Leandro who aspires to big things but is derailed by a drug addiction. And at East Oakland’s Community of Grace RV encampment, there’s Fuentes and her boyfriend Juan Hachomorales, a talented gardener who was arrested and sent to Santa Rita Jail in the middle of filming.
For Lee and the filmmakers, the project was an “experiment,” she said. Lee had gotten to know Maria and other Community of Grace residents because she lives near the camp, and she’d met DJ Nyce while walking her dog in the park where he was staying. When Lee would bring her neighbors bottles of water and occasional meals, she would consistently hear that they were looking for work.
Executive producer Kim Anno suggested they make a “social practice” film, where the subjects were also creators and would receive a nominal stipend for their work. This was a departure for Lee, a filmmaker and editor of documentaries who’s best known for TELOS: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui, about the architect of the ”Fish House” in Berkeley. “Usually there’s more structured roles—usually I’m making a film,” Lee said.
But they tried out this more collaborative approach, giving it a go with many different people, ultimately narrowing it down to the three who committed to the project and stuck with it.
DJ Nyce said he was unsure about participating at first, but was encouraged by a professor of a journalism class he’s taking.
“I couldn’t believe some of the shots that came out,” he said at the premiere. He shared that “life is picking up” for him, and he now has a radio show on KJCC.
For Lee, the process was “eye-opening.” Reviewing the raw footage she received and edited, “I quickly realized [homelessness is] a very, very complicated and multi-layered issue,” she said. With the film, “it’s not like I’m advocating any one thing, but just showing how difficult it is to live on the street. Each person has a unique set of issues. We all do, but it’s compounded by them not having an apartment.”
Despite telling deeply personal stories, the film gets at something “universal,” Lee said. “It’s not so much about them—it’s about how the society and system treats people who don’t have much.”
Through the filmmakers’ eyes, viewers confront the daily challenges and setbacks homeless residents experience, like police who make them relocate, animal control crews who take their beloved pets, people who dump piles of trash outside their trailers, the criminal justice system, the pandemic that began shortly after the project launched, and their own personal demons.
One short scene shows an encounter between Fuentes and a who’s-who of the Oakland officials who deal with homelessness, many of whom have left the city since then. They’ve arrived en masse at the camp to help residents reserve a spot at the upcoming city-run trailer park next door—and to tell them they’ll be kicked out soon if they don’t.
The exasperation is palpable in this scene—from both the city staffers who think they’re offering a safer solution and the residents who feel forced to break up their community. It exemplifies the tensions at play in Oakland. By the time Fuentes’ film ends, the RV park still hasn’t opened.
There are successes and moments of levity in the film, too: the beautiful head of broccoli grown by Hachomorales at the camp garden, and DJ Nyce slyly turning the camera on his muscles after showering at his aunt’s house. In one of the shorts, the subject finally finds the simple but elusive thing they’ve been desperately seeking: a part-time job.
There aren’t any screenings currently scheduled for We R Here, which was initially funded out of Lee’s wallet and later received grants from the city of Oakland and the East Bay Community Foundation. Lee is on the lookout for opportunities to show it.
Meanwhile, the filmmakers are continuing to live and survive outside.
“We’ve made a lot of progress since then,” Fuentes said, “but we’re still there.”