Visiting director calls Grand Makwa screening the film’s ‘most important audience’
There wasn’t an empty chair in sight at an auditorium at the Grand Makwa Cinema on Thursday, Jan. 9, with seating spilling over onto the aisle stairs. That day, the theater featured a free screening of the documentary “The Wall: Stories of the 2018 Homeless Camp.” Film director Brandon Ferdig was present at the screening, conducting a Q and A following the event. Ferdig collaborated with Bradley Harrington, band commissioner of natural resources, to set up the screening. The film prominently features Band member Earl Monchamp, who recently passed away. Both Ferdig and Harrington were available to speak to the importance of this documentary screening.
Explaining the origins of his film, Ferdig stated it began with his YouTube channel, The Periphery, based in Minneapolis. Through this channel, he got his start traveling the country to interview people. Citing his own knack for starting conversations, he said The Periphery initially featured both a mix of pre-arranged interviews as well as those with people he came across in his travels. Eventually, this work took him to the Pacific Northwest, where he became familiar with the homelessness epidemic.
Returning from the northwest in 2017, he decided he was interested in doing a longer series looking at homelessness. In the summer of 2018, the tent city began to form near the wall along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis, and Ferdig began documenting the stories of those residing there.
One of the first individuals he met in the camp was Monchamp.
Self-worth and addiction
“It’s good how it started that way,” Ferdig said. “One could enter an environment like that and be turned away quickly… Thankfully, Earl was very open.” Throughout the summer and fall, Ferdig conducted multiple interviews with both Earl and his wife Kat as they lived at the camp, and these interviews would help shape the whole of the documentary.
While Ferdig noted he still had an interest in looking at homelessness on a countrywide scale, he realized what he was seeing along the wall at Hiawatha Avenue was a story in itself. After he finished filming in 2018, Ferdig spent his time in 2019 putting the documentary together.
Ferdig felt the biggest need at the camp, a need that was easy to overlook because it wasn’t substantive, was self-worth and empowerment.
As for what he would like his film to communicate about homelessness, Ferdig stated that he witnessed a lot of factors underlying homelessness as he filmed, but a prominent factor shared by all those he interviewed was a sense of disempowerment. “I think they felt they weren’t able, allowed or even worthy to do things,” Ferdig said. While at the camp, Ferdig said he saw people refuse help. “It’s a situation where I think they just didn’t believe in themselves,” he added.
He returned to the topic of individuals staying at the camp, even when options were provided, and noted the prevalent role that addiction played at the camp. “It’s difficult doubly when you’re not only beat down economically, but you also have an addiction,” he said. “The need for treatment, the need for sobriety, was paramount.” While some people pursued treatment, he added, others didn’t, and the tent city persisted. He further stated that providing basic accommodations and a roof over an individual’s head was important, but often the benefits of such accommodations could fall through due to the mental blocks of self-worth and addiction. He hoped his film could demonstrate the impact these factors had.
When it came to helping with the homelessness crisis, Ferdig believed a response needed to be community-oriented, especially from within the Native American community. He didn’t necessarily believe this meant he was unable to help as a white person, but he felt a response meant something more and had more clout and credibility when it came from within the community. At the camp in Minneapolis, he witnessed such groups having that presence. He spoke to the importance of funding and supporting community-based outreach and pointed to the Sober Squad in the Mille Lacs area as an example.
Food, housing and healing
Through his documentary work, Ferdig stated he had seen two main ways to help someone struggling on the street: You can give them food, and you can give them healing. Organizations that were working towards community empowerment, he said, helped provide healing. “Healing is just as necessary, just a crucial,” he said, “and without the healing, you’re just going to house someone who continues to abuse drugs and alcohol.”
“[The Grand Makwa Cinema screening] will probably always be the most important viewing of the film,” Ferdig said. “I don’t know an audience that will be more intimately connected to this story than the Mille Lacs Reservation.” For any other audience, Ferdig said he hoped the film might provide the insights and lessons he had learned about empowerment. Showing the film at the Mille Lacs Reservation, he hoped the film could present an opportunity for healing. “I hope it’s a positive, emotional experience,” he said. He equally hoped to learn himself from the community’s response to the film.
Future of the film
When asked after the showing about the future of the film, Ferdig said that he intended to bring the movie to film festivals this year. After that, he would be uploading the film to his youtube channel: www.youtube.com/c/theperiphery/. Those interested could also find extended interviews from his time at the camp on this channel.
The responsibility to learn
Harrington, the Band’s Commissioner of Natural Resources, spoke on his role about bringing a screening of the film to the Grand Makwa Cinema. When the wall encampment was first unfolding in Minneapolis, Harrington recalled hearing about it and the Band members that were involved. Then, when Monchamp passed, he assisted in setting up the funeral, where he met Ferdig. Harrington looked into Ferdig’s work on Facebook and then, by happenstance, received an email requesting the film be shown at the reservation.
When asked what he hoped might come from showing the film, Harrington said the film provided an inside look at living with addiction and homelessness, rather than leaving it to individual imagination. ”Getting in, seeing it, witnessing through the people involved,” he said, “tells an accurate description of what’s happening.” Harrington reflected on his own experience, stating that he’s previously been addicted to drugs, been homeless and has gone to jail. “I’ve done pretty much everything they’ve all done,” he said, “and I’ve known Earl since the 90s, so I think it’s important to get these stories out there to shift the dynamic in society.”
When asked if there were efforts within the Band community to help, Harrington said, “Homelessness, addiction, identity loss, and cultural loss, those are all the sort of issues that blend together.” He pointed to efforts at the school with language and cultural revitalization and, with natural resources, efforts toward cultural resources restoration as both being efforts to help these problems. He also credited Sober Squad for their efforts encouraging sobriety. “We’re also working with housing here at the Mille Lacs Band,” he said, “to give people a place of their own. All those efforts are in place.”
He added, “There’s always more people can do, but I think something that everybody can do is to learn more.” He encouraged learning more about the local area people, the Anishinaabe people themselves, and other Americans affected by homelessness. “This is a problem larger than any one group of people,” he said. He also encouraged attending events like the screening and engaging with the perspective they offered. “We have a world of information at our fingertips,” he said, “being informed is the responsibility of the individual.”
Harrington emphasized the importance of learning. Fedig’s documentary doesn’t shy away from the reality of addiction that underlies homelessness, but it also encourages an empathetic view of the disempowerment that entailed. Ferdig’s documentary has a perspective to offer, and as Harrington described, an opportunity to learn.