On Wednesday, Oct. 26, ViCE organized a film screening of “Pier Kids: The Life,” a documentary focusing on the lives and struggles of homeless gay and transgender youth of color in New York City. The director, Elegance Bratton, a gay man of color who himself battled homelessness for 10 years of his life, personally screened his documentary for the Vassar audience. He followed it up with a question-and-answer session that revealed his personal journey as he went about filming this unfortunate but often under-explored social reality.
Bratton is a director/writer who was pushed out of his home in New Jersey by his mother at the age of 16 for being gay. With no place to go, he found himself in New York City on the Christopher Street Pier, the same street where the Gay Rights Movement began. He then struggled with homelessness for the next 10 years, after which he spent five years in the United States Marine Corps. Then, from 2011–2014, he completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia University and it was during his time there that he returned to the streets where he had wandered as a homeless youth to document the stories of three Pier Kids, DeSean, Casper and Krystal.
As Bratton explained his impulse and experience creating this documentary: “The film is a memoir. I lived this; this is not a form of entertainment. I shot it while I was at Columbia because I was trying to understand what my life was at that point. It was weird to go from being homeless for 10 years, like the people recorded in the film, to studying with people like yourselves and being 10 years older than all of them. So this was a personal journey for me. I didn’t know anything about professional filmmaking when I started, I didn’t have a script, I would just spend Thursday to Sunday on the Pier every week, homeless and filming.”
The documentary, which is a work in progress, is an extremely stark representation of the life led by these homeless LGBT youths of color, and it unabashedly captures the essence of the Pier, of Christopher Street, of the people and their struggles. Alcohol, drugs, prostitution, pornography, theft, confrontations with the police and death are all deeply embedded in the way of life of these youths, and the documentary very candidly depicts these terrifyingly real aspects of being out on the streets. And yet, it’s a home in some form. As one of the subjects in the film asserts, “The Pier is like our living room; it’s where we socialize. With the beauty, the ugly, the drama, this is our home. We have the beautiful moments and the bad moments—everything that happens in a home.”
The documentary’s focus is on three main characters that are homeless due to their sexual orientation. Bratton chose these three particular participants because they seemed to best reflect his own story. He saw himself in DeSean, known to all as the mayor of Christopher Street, who was a natural-born leader whom people would approach and consult. When Bratton was on the streets, he had tended to fulfill that role for people. He also saw himself in DeSean’s hypermasculinity, one of the motivations for which Bratton later entered the Marine Corps.
On the other hand, Bratton stated, “[Casper] represented the risk of it all because he had been killed by a hit-and-run driver while skateboarding at 2 a.m. to go see his transgender girlfriend. And it was so painful for everyone because he was so charming; everyone wanted to be friends with him.” Casper died just two weeks after the interview that Bratton documented, and so he felt it was his duty to put Casper’s story into the film.
In regards to Krystal, a transgender woman, Bratton declared, “She was the star of the documentary. She’s the lead character. She navigates HIV/AIDS housing while trying to hold together a family. She was the mother and, even though she didn’t have a lot to give, she adopted a lot of gay children.” Krystal’s story documents complicated familial relationships while portraying the harsh reality of the battle with HIV/AIDS, especially in the homeless LGBT community.
During the question-and-answer session, Bratton remarked at what he felt his role was as the maker of the film: “I feel I bring myself in through the camera movement, the adjustments of light, my voice or my presence. Whatever angle you’re viewing a particular scene from, it’s because I want you to see it from that perspective. So I would say I’m the viewer’s entryway into the film.”
Yasemin Smallens ’20, the member of ViCE Film who organized Bratton’s appearance, explained why she thought it was a good idea to bring this film to Vassar: “There’s a large queer presence at Vassar, but it’s very homogeneous. We all live in a privileged bubble and have the safety net of college. We will never have the fear of where we’re going to sleep or how we will get food, and we don’t like to think about the role class plays in queerness. We don’t like to think about the prostitution, sex work and pornography parts of the queer community because they’re not kosher. So I think it’s important for us to face that and be exposed to it.”
Chair of ViCE Film Cyrus Cohen ’18 expressed his feelings towards the documentary: “I was struck by how autobiographical it was and how he was able to tell his story through other people’s experiences without co-opting or exploiting them.” He also addressed why he wanted to showcase Bratton’s work, saying, “We wanted to expose Vassar students to this work in progress because it gives insight into a creative process and what it’s really like to be a filmmaker or creator.”
In regards to being a creator, Bratton ended his session with distinct advice for prospective filmmakers and documentarians. “Film what you’re most uncomfortable with,” he stated. “Go to that place inside of yourself and ask yourself really, really honest questions, and when you come back with answers that you don’t like, that’s the thing that you’re supposed to be doing.”