Formerly Homeless Women Become Playwrights in AFI DOCS’ Only Film About D.C.
The AFI DOCS film festival kicks off tonight, and over the course of the week and weekend, it'll screen 84 documentaries from across the U.S. and 28 different countries. But where’s the D.C. love?
There's just one film on the AFI DOCS slate that's from and about the District. How I Got Over, directed by D.C. resident Nicole Boxer, captures the journey of 15 formerly homeless women in an addiction recovery program as they attempt to turn their life experiences into an original theatrical production. In some ways, the story is old news: My Soul Look Back and Wonder, the play created by these women, was performed in front of a full house at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in April 2012 and was featured on the front page of the Washington Post.
The two organizations behind the film—N Street Village and the Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts’ Life Stories Program—are long-running D.C. institutions. N Street Village has provided shelter and recovery services to homeless and low-income women since 1972. In 2007, they partnered with Life Stories, a program that teaches individuals from marginalized communities how to write, act, and direct their own life stories. Since then, as many as 30 N Street Village women have participated each year.
The film premieres this Saturday, bringing to end a three-year post-production process—but for Boxer, the work isn’t over yet. Like many of the films at AFI DOCS, How I Got Over aims to make an impact, particularly on D.C. policymakers. Boxer’s background should give her a boost: The daughter of Senator Barbara Boxer, she co-produced 2012's The Invisible War, a documentary credited with jump-starting the ongoing debate on sexual assault in the U.S. military.
In How I Got Over, Boxer’s target isn't just homelessness. “In my heart, the big piece for me is arts funding,” she says. “Inside this film, there’s homelessness, poverty, mental illness, housing, recovery, addiction, and the art. What I felt and experienced, and what I truly think the message of the film is, [is that] art can cure you.”
To start, Boxer would like to see the Life Stories model incorporated into other institutions that work with recovering addicts and people who are homeless. She shares that goal with Deb Gottesman, co-executive director of the Theatre Lab, who came up with the concept for Life Stories with instructor Thomas Workman. This October, the Theatre Lab will hold its first Life Stories Institute, an intensive four-day workshop that will teach service-providers, educators, and theater artists how to replicate the program and its successes.
Boxer hopes that the documentary will help demonstrate the need for more public funding for the arts. “The best thing I can do is go around and have this conversation about how the arts impacted people that I saw and how it changed me,” she says. The National Endowment of the Arts is one source of funding for Life Stories, but funding can also come from health and social services programs. “More people [need to] feel that arts and arts education have a place in social service projects,” says Gottesman.
Many of the 15 writers of My Soul Look Back and Wonder remain invested in the arts, including Shevanda Brantley, who aspires to be a writer and director. The group reunited last September for a second performance at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's space in downtown D.C. “I think other women should take the opportunity to try it themselves. It’s like taking a load off their shoulders,” says Brantley.
The group of women featured in the doc will see the film for the first time at its premiere at the Naval Heritage Center. Boxer also intends to have a free screening for the community at N Street Village.“If the homeless women see what their peers have done, it will inspire them,” she says. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to be the one [to do it]… the women in their own community that have pulled themselves out will.”
Stills courtesy of Fuchsia Film.