In cities across the country, hundreds of thousands of homeless men, women and children live on the streets. We pass by them every day, yet they are almost invisible to society, willfully ignored by most. The film 30 Seconds Away, directed by former federal agent Faith Kohler and produced by Jessica Farrell, brings us face to face with seven homeless men in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and allows them to tell their stories.

During the hour-and-a-half we’re watching them on the screen, the tables are turned: The invisible are made visible, and now it’s we who are invisible to them. Through this simple act of sharing these men’s lives with the audience, the filmmakers make the fact of their humanity irrefutable.

These men once had families, we learn. They went to work every day, they loved and were loved, just like anyone else. Then bad luck or bad decisions or addiction or a combination of all three left them to fend for themselves on the streets. Through the stories of these men, especially the charismatic Harold Sloan, we learn what it really means to be homeless. But the filmmakers didn’t stop there. We also hear from the people trying to help these men find their way off the streets, or at least survive — the cops of the city’s homeless outreach team, the city attorneys and judges whose decisions shape their fate, a local food pantry manager who gives Harold a job.

It’s no mean feat to engage an audience on an issue that often invokes indifference or outright disdain — something the filmmakers were acutely aware of in embarking upon the project. But by telling the story of homelessness through seven individual lives followed over the course of five years, the film draws viewers into their world and makes them care about how those lives will turn out.

Kohler, who had developed a friendship with Harold before making the film, blends the personal and the objective to create a revealing, nuanced narrative that proves even the toughest subjects can be made relatable through the power of story. On a recent Saturday afternoon at her immaculate townhouse in downtown Milwaukee, Kohler talked to Storyboard about how 30 Seconds Away — which sold out all three of its screenings at the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival — came into being, the challenges of tracking characters who are often unreachable, and the many unexpected developments she and her team had to weather while filming.

Taking on a feature is a pretty ambitious move for a first-time filmmaker. What inspired you to make this film? Did your experiences with Harold provide some of the impetus? Yes. I met him at a day shelter. He would sleep at the courthouse, and go to the day shelter to get something to eat. Sometimes when I was on the streets [as a federal agent] I would go there, it was pretty high crime neighborhood, and I would just stop in and grab a cup of coffee and just talk to some of the people there and say hi. At first he wouldn’t look at me. He didn’t even make eye contact. It was a while after I had been stopping in there. One day I asked him, who were you, and how did you get here? And he told me about his family life. There were a series of conversations we had over time, and I recorded them on my phone. I wasn’t sure what I would do with it, I thought maybe I would write a blog piece about it, but really had no idea at the time. But when we were sitting down having coffee at the shelter one day, some other homeless men stopped by and asked, ‘Hey, what are you talking to her about?’ And when Harold told them he was telling me his story, they said they wanted to tell their story, too. I started asking them what they thought about poverty, what they thought about homelessness.
We started putting little one-minute clips on YouTube, somebody talking about homelessness or poverty. When I realized I was probably getting enough material to do something bigger with it, I realized I needed someone with much better technical skills and equipment than I had available. My neighbor, Dick Baugh, who was a film professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said he had a couple students who were interested in doing something on homelessness and poverty. He introduced me to [director of cinematography] Alex Block, and Alex introduced me to Jessica Farrell, the producer. And the three of us started collaborating. They had access to really good equipment through the film department at the university, and they actually had been going into abandoned buildings — initially to look at graffiti — and they developed an interest for seeing sort of what was underneath Milwaukee. They didn’t know where to go, and they were nervous to go into some places. That’s where I came in handy — I kind of knew the underbelly of the city from my work in law enforcement. We kind of filmed sporadically when the three of us could get together, and when something happened we wanted to capture. We worked on it nights and weekends.
People have no idea how complicated your life is when you’re homeless. What you endure, what your life is like. I think it’s important to show that world, because if you don’t, it’s invisible.
All of the men in the film are such compelling characters. Was it clear from the start that Harold would be the main character, or did you consider others? With Harold, he was the easiest to follow of all our characters, because he would show up from time to time. I was his lifeline sometimes. He would call me if he was in jail, then he’d call me if he got out of jail. If he was in transitional housing, he would call me and tell me where he was. All of the homeless men have different backgrounds, different issues they were dealing with. Did you deliberately seek out a diverse cast of characters? Yes. We filmed a lot of people. We wanted to talk about the underlying issues of homelessness, so we selected the characters we thought would have the best illustration of those kinds of underlying issues, everything from the chronic criminality, to drug abuse, the whole cycle of being in and out of jail, the breakdown of family relationships … There was a little of that scattered through all the characters’ stories. It shows that it’s not only a diverse cast of characters that can become homeless, but also that there are a lot of different things that can make someone homeless. It seems like you picked the right time to make this film. A lot happened during that particular period of time when you were filming, 2009-2014. There was the new homeless outreach effort from the police department, Harold getting an apartment, and then just recently the new city effort to address homelessness, among other things. That’s what seems so crazy to me. Harold predicted so many things that actually happened. As he was telling me about his poor relationship with the police department, they were forming this unit that was moving forward to try to build a bridge, because they were fully aware of the disconnect. And that disconnect was something I really wanted to explore. I think some of it was timing and luck, but I think the level of access I had really helped. I was working with the police department, I was embedded in it for a period of time when I worked in narcotics, and when I worked violent crimes, so I was up-to-date on what they were doing and could bring that back to the homeless community.      The problem is the same across the country. The difference is in how cities are dealing with it.

The film begins with Harold’s voice, then he appears on the screen, and your voiceover comes in. You tell us right up front that Harold was a friend, and, essentially, why you’re telling his story and those of the other men. You also come back with another voiceover at the very end. How did you come to the decision to insert yourself in the film this way? I’m one of those people who hates hearing their voice recorded. I cringe when I hear the sound of my own voice. I can’t tell you how many tries it took me to get that right in the studio. I didn’t want to do it. But I don’t know if it would have been as compelling to the audience or got their attention without [them] knowing this was very personal to me. I thought it might be the thing that’s needed to bring the neighbors into that world. So I came to accept that I had to be the face of this. I wanted to let the characters speak for themselves, but I had to be the carrot to draw the general audience in.      One question I had was, Do we need narration [throughout the film]? And Alex was dead set against it. He said no, we have to let the characters tell the story themselves. He was right. It made it harder to put it together, but it was a much better way to tell the story.

After we meet Harold, we’re introduced to the others, one by one. When we meet Todd Kyrola in this scene, he’s singing a song that he says he wrote but that we quickly recognize — he just came up with his own lyrics. It’s a moment of humor, but it’s also poignant as we watch him sing, “Watchin’ my life slip away …” Was including those moments of levity a conscious effort to give the audience a break from the heavy subject matter? Yes. Homelessness is a very depressing topic. I thought it was important to show not only that they have mental illness, but that they had brothers and they had jobs and they have a sense of humor. It humanizes them. That seems really key in getting the audience engaged in a film like this, given the difficulty of the subject matter. During the premier, when something really funny was said, the funniest part was watching people and see them look at each other and sort of ask permission to laugh, thinking that, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t laugh because it’s such a serious topic.’

It’ s not until this point, about 40 minutes into the film, that we learn that Harold suffers from bipolar disorder. Was that a deliberate decision, to make the characters relatable first, before we learn about the more challenging aspects of their lives and personalities? Yes, we didn’t want to define them by their issues. I think in general people are less forgiving when they see the issue first. But if they see the person first, they’re more forgiving of the issue.

Here we go from a moment of levity with the municipal judge Derek Mosley to a couple of seconds of black screen, and then we see the train crossing the bridge over the river. You create a quiet moment that signals a shift in mood and seems to try to prepare the audience for the wrenching revelation that comes next: Todd’s murder. What were your challenges in telling this difficult part of the story We didn’t want to sensationalize his death, but we didn’t want to downplay it either. He died over $100 over a hotel room. And he was beaten to death over a period of hours. They would beat him, then he would get up, and they would beat him some more. It was pretty horrid. After Todd was killed, we actually interviewed his mother and one of his daughters, but I wondered at what point am I trespassing on his family’s grief? We didn’t use the footage, because it was terrible footage, the sound was horrible, but also because it didn’t really add anything. I think he told his own story very well. And honestly looking back at the footage it felt voyeuristic. It felt so intrusive.

Here we have the municipal judge, Derek Mosley, whom we met earlier in the film, sentencing Harold to community service. He gives him another chance. He even identifies with Harold in a way. Again, stereotypes are challenged, as they are throughout the film. Why was it important to you to include the judge’s perspective? It made it more credible to the audience, that a guy like Derek would help a guy like Harold. The homeless community and the law enforcement community are part of the same small community — they interact so much.

This is a pivotal moment in the narrative arc of the film. Harold has a home, and he’s so clearly healthy and happy here, proudly showing it off to you. And there’s this emotional moment, when he addresses you directly, and he starts to tear up. Then you hug him on camera. How did you come to the decision to include that moment, when you become part of the scene? At that point in the film we felt it was okay for us to be in it, to acknowledge that there was actually a camera and me in the scene. And in that scene you see that he was just so comfortable being in front of the camera, because at that point in life there was nothing he was ashamed of. He was so comfortable letting those walls down and letting us in, and I didn’t want to take that part of his story away from him. And it showed how Harold changed, how his relationships grew.      One of the reasons I wanted to use this form of media to tell the story is, you can see him change physically. Early on he was very lean, almost gaunt, and he had a harsher cast from being out in the elements. And then you look at him here toward the end of the film, when he was in housing, helping out at the food pantry and eating well, and he looks so much better.

In this scene, where we hear from Martin Kohler, a criminal defense attorney, you’re zooming out to take a look at the larger, societal forces that factor into the homelessness problem, and put the individual stories we’ve heard in a broader context. But with these reflections from the people on the law enforcement side, you’re also revealing who these people are behind the badges and the ties. What was the thinking behind showing the legal side of the issue in this way? I wanted to show the people, their stories, without a slant. A lot of the films I’ve seen about homelessness are about policy, and they’re either on one side or the other. I wanted to show the issues around homelessness without calling it good or bad, because the characters do that very well themselves. I saw my role as letting them tell their stories, and the audience can come to their own conclusion.

After we see Harold in his new apartment we think there’s going to be a happy ending. But it doesn’t turn out that way — it’s just the opposite, as we learn in this scene. How did you deal with Harold’s death — the death of not just a character, but a friend — while filming? And how did it affect the story you wanted to tell? That’s the point when I called Jess and I said, I just need for this to be done. But the most important thing was for me to be true to his story. I was thinking maybe now people will get it — there will be setbacks, there will be incredibly high days where everything is going well, and there will be others that completely suck. And that was one that completely sucked. I guess that’s kind of the point of the story, isn’t it? That we as people don’t have happy endings all the time. None of us live a freaking fairly tale. And as hard as we try, we have setbacks, we have challenges, we all have friends and family who suffer from mental illness, from addiction, have all kinds of challenges. It’s no different when you’re homeless, the problems are just compounding and suck worse, because you don’t have resources.      We moved him into the apartment two months before he died. There was this big rush of excitement, like whenever you move into something new. But everything slowly came apart for him after that. The moral of the story for all of us is, homeless people die, even homeless people who get unhomeless. They don’t lose their substance abuse issues just because they have housing. They don’t suddenly not need support anymore because they have housing. And for filming purposes, it seemed like a really good place to end. Because how many of us die with unresolved issues? Believe me, I’d like nothing better than to have a happy ending, where he magically got over his addiction and he ended up getting a job doing whatever. I would have loved that ending to this story, but it was a reminder as a filmmaker that you don’t really get to make your own ending. You show what is, and in the world of homelessness, people die. End of story. It sounds kind of grim, doesn’t it? And yet you were able to offer some hope in the coda, after the Milwaukee County homeless housing program was initiated 6 months later. I’m such a proponent on the housing initiative, because If you move someone into an apartment and they start relapsing, you don’t have to go back to square one. You’re still there to say it’s okay, we understand you have these challenges. That might be our next story.

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