Old Town filmmaking project provides an escape from addiction and despair

From The Oregonian, January 09, 2010

This alley in Northwest Portland became a place of great significance for the filmmakers of the documentary, Old Town Diary. Many of the actors, recovering addicts, are real characters from the neighborhood.

This alley in Northwest Portland became a place of great significance for the filmmakers of the documentary, "Old Town Diary." Many of the actors, recovering addicts, are real characters from the neighborhood.

What they took to calling The Alley — a place that would come to carry great significance for them — is an unremarkable patch of concrete set against a crumbling brick building, not far from the Greyhound bus station and Blanchet House, surrounded by a chest-high wall. They had searched for days for a suitable place to stage an epiphany. But in the typical workings of the universe, the minute they set out looking for one, they couldn’t find it.

If anything, though, this was a group that knew something about persistence, and one day, they happened to peer over the wall. They took in the needles, sodden blankets, discarded socks and empty bottles littering the ground. In the background, the Steel Bridge — where a young couple, unable to see a way out of their heroin addiction, killed themselves a little more than 10 years ago — loomed. And they knew they had found the place.

* * *

They are clients of the Community Engagement Program, at Portland nonprofit Central City Concern, who since June have participated in a filmmaking project designed to give voice to their experiences on the streets and their attempts to change their lives. But there’s a tension in all this, because it’s Central City’s policy to maintain clients’ anonymity because of federal medical privacy laws, but also because as it sorts through years of addiction, mental illness and homelessness, recovering addicts are still in a very precarious place. And on the one hand, especially to reporters, this policy can feel maddening — shouldn’t people be able to tell their own stories? On the other hand, if you stop to think about it, the stakes here are higher than most of us can fathom from the comfort of our lives, those of us who have never had to start over from nothing — let alone multiple times.

Many of the actors, recovering addicts, are real characters from the neighborhood. But a few others volunteered to be part of the film, including Everclear singer Art Alexakis. After the filming, Alexakis did studio voice recordings.

Many of the actors, recovering addicts, are real characters from the neighborhood. But a few others volunteered to be part of the film, including Everclear singer Art Alexakis. After the filming, Alexakis did studio voice recordings.

Those in the filmmaking group, for their part, when faced with the anonymity policy, came up with a compromise: They would write a fictional screenplay — though drawn from actual experiences — and they would film it in on location in Old Town, in places familiar to them. They’d use an actor or two, but mostly, they would cast real characters from the neighborhood — people outside the program, who could be filmed.

I, too, compromised. I could follow the participants through the process, see the Old Town they would show me, so long as I didn’t identify the participants. Otherwise I was free to report events as they unfolded, interview anyone I wanted.

The leader of this filmmaking group is a man named Brian Lindstrom. Among his own projects, he has made two documentaries about people overcoming addiction — “Kicking,” which follows three drug users through detox, and “Finding Normal,” which tracks recovering addicts as they take the first steps toward rebuilding their lives (and which I wrote about in 2007).

Lindstrom also has worked with Central City clients since 1994, teaching them the fundamentals of moviemaking as a way to help them gain greater clarity over their lives. As he puts it, it is a way to give back by helping those who are often subjects of his personal films tell their own stories. (Ed Blackburn, Central City’s executive director, said of Lindstrom’s approach: “He has the ability to encapsulate people’s stories in a way that preserves their dignity and is also responsible in terms of not exploiting their vulnerabilities … but it’s real, it’s not a propaganda piece … .”)

Lindstrom believes the collaborative nature of filmmaking is a good way to draw people out of their isolation and help them recognize that they have something valuable to contribute. At the same time, he says, it can give people a way to try out possibilities for their own futures: “Taking a character through the challenges that are inherent in a dramatic story, it allows someone to say, ‘That person overcame obstacles. I’m in the process of overcoming obstacles. I think I can do that, too.'”

The group began meeting weekly in June.

How they came to it? Two answers:

“My P.O. and the judge told me I had to go to a program and once I’m done with a program I’ll be off paper,” one man said. “My counselor came and got me from Hooper” — a detox center — “and I’ve been here ever since. It’s going to take some time — I’ve been using all my life. I’m slowly getting my people back in my life … I like coming here because it gives me something to do, makes me think there’s hope out there.”

“I’ve been clean a little while,” another man said. “There’s nothing unique about my story. I’m a heroin addict who has trouble staying clean … .”

Why come to the filmmaking class?

“This is something fun. And I like learning things.”

Together, they studied films — “Finding Normal” and “On the Bowery,” a 1957 film that blended documentary and scripted moments to tell the story of life on the margins in the New York neighborhood and which inspired the group’s own hybrid approach. And then together, they wrote a script they called “Old Town Diary.”

* * *

Which brings us back to The Alley.

In the script, The Alley becomes the scene of the film’s turning point, the place where the main character realizes he can’t go on, that he’s ready to check into detox.

Lindstrom takes the collaborative aspect very seriously — as one member of the group told me, “I feel like I’m working with him; it’s like he’s grateful for our insight” — and he charged the group with scouting for the perfect locations. They, in turn, spent hours of their own time and offered all sorts of ideas: The interior of The Joyce Hotel. A meal at the Blanchet House. The Burnside Bridge.

But it was The Alley that participants mentioned most often.

“I did not want to miss The Alley scene,” said one young man in his 20s, one of the group’s most recent additions, who had pulled himself out of bed that morning with this particular motivation. It was December now, and filming of “Old Town Diary” finally had begun. Over time, the group had dwindled from eight to about three stalwarts, as members battled the very same challenges they sought to capture in the film. There were relapses, medical emergencies. Jail time to be served. “All kinds of things that made it difficult,” Lindstrom said. “And that’s frustrating, but what’s also true is there’s been such a momentum to the project and such follow-through. People have taken it so seriously. Despite all these things, they still come back.”

Working with a $5,000 grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, donations from the Lindlay Family Fund and a crew of volunteers, including director of photography John Campbell (who shot “Mala Noche” and “My Own Private Idaho”), camera operator Justin Alpern (who donated the camera package), and Everclear singer Art Alexakis (who offered to play the main character and who also let hair and makeup artist volunteer Madeline Roosevelt make him look so sickly and tired that a stranger walked up to him and said, “Are you Art Alexakis? Man, you look HORRIBLE”). They filmed “Old Town Diary” over three frigid days in mid-December.

Every day, group members are there for the filming, as are their caseworkers — Carly Laney and Lexi Olson — watching the script they worked so hard on come to life. Some are missing, including one of the most dedicated members, who the caseworkers leave messages for that go unreturned for days. But then, here it is again, the surprising return: He shows up for the last day of filming. Another man, 59, also among the most dedicated participants, had stayed for all nine hours of the first day of filming, enduring the cold — so cold that when they film outside Hooper, they leave their prop sleeping bags with two men who are trying to sleep there that night — only to wake up sick the next morning, desperately disappointed.

* * *
He could not be there again the next day, when they reported at 7:30 a.m. to the Joyce Hotel and rented Room 212, where they would film the main character discovering a notebook someone has left behind in his $30-a-night room — the diary of the film’s title.

This diary belongs to me, Steve. If you’ve found it, I’m probably dead. Or maybe in jail. Or in a mental institution. … What I’m going for is I’m just going to try and write the truth.

Always that dark voice in the back of my mind: “You can’t.” “You’re not good enough.” “Once a junkie, always a junkie.” I wonder which came first, the voice or the using? Do I use because of that voice, or do I have that voice in my head beating me up because I use? If I stopped using, would the voice stop? What if I stopped using and the voice was still there? Then what would I do?

I’m so sick of repeating the same misery. Every damn day wakin up dope sick, the humiliation of begging, stealing, scoring, plunging the … needle. There has to be more than this. I have to be more than this. I have to find a way out.
While they film, a man bangs on the door of Room 208, repeatedly calling for a friend who never answers. From down the hall comes the sound of someone being sick. A woman emerges from her room and recognizes one of the participants — the one who spoke of his hope to get “off paper.” “Hey Shorty. What’re you doing here?”

“Making a movie,” he says and laughs.

And then, it’s a scene downstairs between the main character and the man at the front desk, in this case, played by Greg Blank, who actually works the front desk at 8 N.W. Eighth Avenue, which offers drug- and alcohol-free affordable housing, and who is a familiar face to many people in Old Town trying to get their lives straight. There are also appearances by people in “Finding Normal”; in fact, the group specifically requested that one of the documentary’s subjects — Paul Kochs, a man who speaks with deep eloquence about his path to recovery — star as the film’s other major character opposite Alexakis.

And then it’s time for The Alley scene. The crew members arrive to discover a bedroll, recently used, and new needles scattered about, and they settle in to film the moment that marks the main character’s revelation, where, as the script says, “something gathers within himself.”

Michael Jos real life story about alcohol addiction and recovery is part of the film. Participating was a way, he says, to use his real life experience to help people who see the film to accept and understand people living on the street.

Michael Jo's real life story about alcohol addiction and recovery is part of the film. Participating was a way, he says, to use his real life experience to help people who see the film to accept and understand people living on the street.

Just a week before, Lindstrom, Campbell and the man who had endured the first marathon day of filming only to wind up sick, much to his regret, had been here to take photos for the film’s storyboard. The man’s name is Michael Jo. He asked that I use it so that maybe the people who helped him when he was at his worst would know he’s still alive. And while we stood there, staring at the dirty ground, Michael Jo started telling me his story, and it seems only right that I leave you with his voice and with his name — your own Old Town Diary — because he says it far more beautifully than I ever could, why they are drawn to this place, why they do not want it to remain overlooked and unnoticed, why they want the rest of us to see it, too:

I should tell you, I hit the bottom with alcohol. I’d been living in Arizona, and it was time for me to go before I killed myself there. I stepped off the bus in Portland on Sept. 9th 2002, and from the moment my foot hit the ground, I didn’t have a drink for three years. I knew that for what I was going to do I needed a clear head. Just being sober for three years was a big leap. I reconnected with my family, reconnected with my mother. I had an apartment. I made it beautiful, comfortable. And then one night I went to Fred Meyer’s to get a bike hook. I had money in the bank, a Visa. I went to the Fred Meyer in Gateway, and I bought a pint. At the time I thought, what’s wrong with this picture, but I told myself I’ve been sober 3 years — I’m cool. I never stopped. I was evicted, lost all my stuff. I spent 10 months in residential rehab.

As we stand here today, I have two months, two weeks clean. It’s the most quality clean time I’ve had since I got off the bus. It’s been sort of like I’m learning to walk all over. I can honestly say the Community Engagement Program saved my life. I’d been down so long I thought what’s the point, I’ll just drink until I’m dead. Two months ago, I was just hanging around CEP and someone said why don’t you come to the film-making group and I just got drawn in.

I feel like I can see the world now. I’m not all fogged in. And this time I have a real sense of well being — it’s not euphoria, it’s just somehow everything’s led up to a point where I feel good.

I want to do something that will let me sustain that feeling. What we’re doing with this film, this feels good. … I’ll never be a great director or an actor, but I can be real. … I’ve fallen on my face on the sidewalk. I know what that feels like. Part of the thing with this film is I’m using my experience … for something good, that maybe it can help people accept and understand people on the streets.

As for me, I’m hoping I can feel alive the way I have these last two months.

A guy died in my building the other night. It was complications from diabetes. It was a natural death. I’m not going to say that’s a good death.

But it was just his body that gave out.

Coming up
Old Town Diary
When: 6 p.m. Feb. 28
Where: Cinema 21, 616 N.W. 21st Ave.
Screens along with Brian Lindstrom’s other film, “To Pay My Way With Stories.”