The National Runaway Safeline, the national communication system for runaway and homeless youth with more than 250,000 connections annually, sat down…
The National Runaway Safeline, the national communication system for runaway and homeless youth with more than 250,000 connections annually, sat down with filmmakers Michael Leoni and Michelle Kaufer to discuss their new feature documentary “American Street Kid” the origins of the film and what they hope to accomplish once it is complete. Check out the article and trailer below.
Filmmaker Michael Leoni knows his subject too well. Twice the director has been on the verge of homelessness. “I was 19, living in New York. I did not have a good relationship with my parents. Things just started to fall apart,” he explains to the National Runaway Safeline (NRS). “I was on a bad path.”
Michael was able to turn things around. He moved to LA, but he never forgot those experiences. In many ways they have informed his work, directly and indirectly, ever since. His latest project, “American Street Kid,” aims to shine a light on the epidemic of homeless youth in America and provide a voice for this often unheard, often invisible population. Only in the past year, thanks to a Federal mandate, have youth even been included in annual point-in-time homeless counts, a kind of national census of homeless populations. Because it is such a challenging population to document, their numbers have gone unreported, their stories unheard. Michael interviewed more than 300 runaway youth to collect their stories. Stories he hopes will have an impact on not only the way homeless youth are seen, but also to make certain they are seen at all.
“It started as a two-minute PSA,” producer Michelle Kaufer points out.
“Yeah, two minutes turned into six years,” Michael jokes. “I usually throw myself into projects head on. I really set out to make a connection. This one was no different, but after I turned off the cameras, I couldn’t shut it off. These kids were in trouble, they had nowhere to turn, so I really started to become a mentor. I really just became involved in their lives.”
When he first arrived in Los Angeles, Michael wrote and directed “The Playground,” a Rock Music‐ infused stage play inspired by the lives of homeless kids and teenage runaways he had met when he was 19. The production was drawn directly from his earlier experiences in New York. He had interviewed the kids he met on the streets and used it to put together a critically acclaimed narrative that got a lot of attention.
“There was interest from television and talk of a Broadway adaptation, but the risk of compromising the material the material was too great,” Michael says.
Michelle adds, “It would have been easy material to exploit. We didn’t want it sensationalized.”
Instead, “The Playground” continued to run at least once a year for five consecutive years following its debut in LA to outstanding reviews. Among the audience at one of those shows was an individual who profoundly shaped Michael’s life for the next several years. It was not a theater producer, television executive, or filmmaker, but a runaway youth that set the tone of things to come.
“We had a lot of street kids in and out attending the performances,” Michael says, “Raven was one of them.”
Raven identified deeply with one of “The Playground” characters, who like herself was forced to sell her own body at 15 just to survive. It is a tragically common story on the streets. New York Times journalist, Nicholas Kristof, tackled the issue on his blog earlier this month noting, “…there are hundreds of thousands of other runaways out on the streets. These are our kids, in danger. Shouldn’t they be a national priority?” And, a recent study conducted by the Institute of Medicine found that homelessness was the largest contributing factor to sex trafficking.
Unfortunately, tragically common doesn’t mean widely told. Raven had never encountered a character that so strongly paralleled her own experience; she connected on an incredibly deep level. It was her story up on stage, and when the character meets her untimely death at the hands of a John, Raven saw a chilling glimpse of her own future. In an uncanny display of life imitating art, Raven was murdered by a John in the same way the character had been.
“It really had a strong impact on me,” Michael confides. “I knew I had to do something. That is where the PSA idea came from. I thought if I could just show what was going on, bring some attention to the issue, but a PSA wasn’t going to be enough.”
“I started filming the kids [for the PSA], connecting with them. Asking questions, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’, ‘What is your story?’ like that. For a lot of them it was the first time someone had asked. It was the first time someone was interested in their story.”
There is an old adage among documentary filmmakers, carried over from journalism, not to make yourself part of the story. It hadn’t taken long for the PSA to evolve into something more sophisticated and from there, even less time for Michael, Michelle and their team to blur those lines even further. Michael didn’t just throw himself into the work, but into their lives as well.
“I couldn’t turn my back on them. At the end of the day, packing up our equipment and heading home didn’t feel right. These situations didn’t stop when the camera wasn’t rolling,” Michael says.
In many ways the documentary became secondary to the interventions in the lives of youth they met. Michael became enmeshed in their street family. He became a mentor—a big brother figure—to teens who had nowhere else to turn. He helped to get some into rehab; others he assisted getting access to transitional living. Over the course of the six year project, members of that street family, those who started as just subjects of the film had died, others had disappeared entirely. For Michael, this began to take a toll—financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually—as the needs he was addressing quickly outpaced his personal resources. There were even moments on the journey that had almost pushed him into homelessness himself.
While the film is almost done—they’re currently raising funds to complete their post-production—that journey is just beginning. Both Michael and Michelle see the film as an opportunity to do more than just raise awareness. They want to use it as a way to advance solutions that help restructure all facets of a youth’s life.
“Even when you get a youth off the streets physically there is still more work that needs to be done to psychologically and spiritually prepare them to have a future,” Michael says. “It is not as simple as just getting them a job and getting them on their feet. It really is about changing their mindset.”
Michelle elaborates, “The most surprising discovery for me through all of this was to witness their capacity for love and hope against all odds. Being able to help them direct that energy toward rebuilding their lives, that would be amazing.”