Marc Zammit’s Homeless Ashes traces the story of Frankie, a young boy who stands up to his fears and runs away from his abusive home. A decision that soon sees him fighting to survive on the streets.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Zammit to learn more about the film and the important issues it tackles.
Q: For anyone who lives in a city, it can be an everyday occurrence to walk past a number of homeless people and – as sad as this is – not blink an eye. Has homelessness always been an issue that troubled you? Or did George Wilcox’s script for ‘Homeless Ashes’ bring it into focus for you?
A: Homelessness is a subject very close to my heart. I was from a council estate from a poor background in Bethnal Green in East London and I was surrounded by homelessness. When you’re in this kind of environment as a child growing up, you think to yourself, “Is this is going to be me? Am I capable of anything?”
I knew exactly how I wanted this film to be, but I also knew I could not write the script as I am severely dyslexic and it wouldn’t have made any sense! While on another shoot I met writer George Wilcox and we talked at length, and he agreed to write the script for me. We worked closely together and went through several drafts.
When I read the final version I knew this had to be my directorial debut. Now it has come to life, and the reality is on screen for the world to see.
Q: I live in Watford. There seems to be a growing number of people living on the streets, many of whom seem to be scarily young. Why did you feel this is an issue that government and society can’t seem to get to grips with?
A: I was raised in a similar area and I’ve visited Watford a few times. This tragedy is growing and growing with even more younger people on the streets than ever. We seem to all be divided by class, and separated by people’s perception of whether you are working class, middle class or from a privileged background. Are you successful? Do you have a degree?
Also we now live in a society where everything is overpriced, and there is very little chance for young people to save for their own homes anymore. Rents are skyrocketing too. This is so draining, and many people just give up, because they simply can’t do it. The pressures and struggles of life today are overwhelming for many.
The best way, in my opinion, to help is if we treat people equally and not according to their status. Everyone has a duty to take notice and pay attention to what is going on around them and take action – because they can.
Q: Can you tell us more about the character of Frankie and the circumstances that have brought him to life on the streets?
A: Frankie’s life took him to the streets because of violence at home. His father took all his frustrations out on his mother, making her a victim. I think this is quite common in the world that we live in, especially behind closed doors.
Frankie gets pushed into an unpleasant situation and forced to act. Then he runs away because he is too overwhelmed emotionally to deal with the aftermath and flees. He is scared and vulnerable. He has little in the way of education and has no idea where to go, so he falls in with the wrong people.
We follow his journey and share his battles as he survives day to day living homeless on the streets and see others he meets in similar circumstances and we begin to understand their stories.
Q: Life on the streets must be an extremely harsh reality with mental health issues, drug abuse, crime, and a litany of other hardships. What is the cycle that keeps a person like Frankie on the streets?
A: The thing is that we know that drug abuse causes a lot of crime and is widely used in very well established industries and by successful people. Drug abuse is only in your face with homelessness because it is there on your doorstep. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen behind closed doors in lots of other places. There are no doors to hide it with homelessness and mental illness is definitely a factor.
There are so many factors that keep someone on the street. It could be from losing someone very close to them, which is what happened to Chico, and they then turn to the bottle. It could be sexual abuse or domestic violence at home. This trauma stays with people and they lose themselves mentally.
What keeps Frankie on the street is that he doesn’t have a place he feels is a safe place to go to. He doesn’t know who to turn to and he doesn’t like to ask for help. He feels he has to do things on his own. He has built trust with friends that he’s made on the streets because it is what he knows and what he trusts and we all kind of live like this. We don’t like change sometimes, even if the support is out there.
There are a lot of homeless charities and organisations but they can’t help everyone. There are too many homeless people and everyone has their own problems, so taking on a stranger’s problem is just adding to your own problems. So that is why people try to avoid it or ignore it or just don’t get involved, but sometimes a simple ‘hello’, ‘are you ok?’, ‘how are you?’, ‘is there anything that I can get you?’ goes a long way to making life a little easier today.
Q: You spent time meeting real people living on the streets. What stood out to you the most about their way of life and their outlook on it?
A: What I found the most is that the homeless people I met hated being judged and assumed that they are taking drugs or drinking and treated like they were born homeless.
One thing that touched me the most is that every single homeless person that I met had a different story. There are so many reasons why you can end up on the street. I could be here all day explaining them or some of them, but it’s a naive mind that thinks it could never happen to you when it can.
Some people are always playing catch up: you are behind on rent and bills, bills are catching up with you and you owe the bank money, you’re in debt and your family and friends or certain family friends are not around anymore or not there to help you. You are alone and the next thing you know you are on the streets.
There are so many situations and hearing all of these stories made me realise that that these people have just run into some very, very bad luck and they are trying to find a second chance. They are all trying to find the second chance. They are stuck and they are afraid.
Q: How did you approach playing Frankie and how did you find the experience of entering his head space?
A: Oh, nice question! When I was directing young Hector Bateman Harden, I watched closely how he was playing young Frankie because we found him first. I tried to take on some of the personality traits that Hector developed with the character. I used them to help with the development of the older Frankie and to get into the headspace of Frankie.
When I was playing Frankie and I was wearing Frankie’s ‘costume’, I felt so judged. I’ve never felt so judged in my whole life. At the same time I felt so alone and invisible and that helped me, it helped not to care what people think and it helped me focus. I’m telling Frankie’s story, and because I felt so alone, invisible and judged. It gave me the headroom to be the best version of Frankie, the best version of himself and what he was going through; and for him just not to give up, to keep going like me.
Frankie and I had a very strong relationship because it was like, Marc keep going, keep getting the funds for this film, keep getting the funds for this film, let’s finish this film together. Come on Frankie let’s finish this film together that’s what I felt like. Let’s tell this story and that was it really. It was Frankie and I surviving this journey together.
Q: ‘Homeless Ashes’ will have its UK premiere at the Raindance Film Festival. What chord do you hope Frankie’s journey strikes with UK audiences?
A: I really hope the film is successful and that it inspires other independent filmmakers to not be afraid to tell their stories. I hope the audience walks away feeling influenced and encouraged to do their own thing to help homelessness, even by just saying ‘hello’, or giving warm clothes or finding shelter.
There are so many ways we can help: a little bit of loose change, a sandwich and hot drink. I hope the audience feels moved enough to reach out, and not just walk past. It might be a small thing to you but you can make a big difference to that person you help. If everyone does something then we can all make a difference.
Raindance is such a great opportunity to shine a light on what this film is about, and I really don’t know what to expect but I am sure it’s going to be great. We hope this will help us secure a solid distribution deal and a chance to spread Frankie’s story to a wider audience.
Q: I also saw that the film is heading to the LA Film Festival soon. I hear a lot about their ballooning homeless population. How important do you feel it is that this film connects with audiences in the US and internationally?
A: The thing is homelessness is a global issue, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if it’s in the UK or the US people are going to relate to it either way. I am really hopeful about the film going to the US and getting Frankie’s message to America.
Chico’s (Lew Temple) role was intentionally made American so we could try and connect to a wider audience. Although the film is clearly set in London and the UK, I hope Americans feel they can relate to the film as Frankie’s journey could have been set anywhere in the world.
You can see ‘Homeless Ashes’ at the Raindance Film Festival in London (23 September). For more info