Bum’s Paradise is a sob story documentary about a group of homeless persons who drift to an abandoned landfill in Albany, California and build a settlement that the bums hope they can keep as their own modest “paradise.”
Over a span of at least eight years, the homeless begin to build up the garbage dump, adding character, an aesthetic and a sense of outsider community amidst a stretch of land as unwanted as they are.
But all good things must come to an end, residents of the would-be bum utopia find out, as one day the Albany Police Department shows up with orders to abate and vacate. The city plans to make a park out of the former landfill.
Director Thomas McCabe gives one of the more outspoken bums, nicknamed “Rabbit,” a video camera to document life at the landfill, making the documentary uniquely personal and intimate, as the bum, “Rabbit,” also narrates much of the documentary using notes from a journal he keeps.
The film puts a human face on the poverty and seeks to expose creative, artistic and intelligent sides to the underclass of people often viewed by outsiders as a verminous subhuman nuisance to upscale society.
It also reinforces the dinginess that is a part of being homeless, showing the leathery, sun-parched skin, brown patches of dirt, sores and missing teeth of some of the worst of the hard-ups.
At one point, “Rabbit” is shown slurping up a carton of melted ice cream he found in a dumpster as merrily as if it were a delicious bowl of home-cooked soup.
The documentary reveals a folksy, artistic side of many of the homeless, showing the sorts of large-scale sculptures, murals and paintings that minds with plenty of spare time and no employment obligations can conjure up.
One of the more decrepit and sad homeless people, “Jimbow the Hobo” even writes poetry attacking his woeful situation and a society that rejects him.
The film shows self-reflection from the homeless that is both good and bad.
“Rabbit” points out the irony that they are so close to San Francisco, which he calls a city of “countless options” and yet they choose to scrape by in a garbage dump.
Many others comment that the reason that they are where they are, is that once people fail economically and don’t have family or friends they can lean on for support, their miserable fate is sealed. And the hole they dig for their lives gets deeper and deeper with no way out.
“Drinking in public — $135!” shouts a homeless black man with dreadlocks who built himself a makeshift shelter at the landfill. “Hundred-and-what?” he asks rhetorically. “Oh, I saw you sleeping over there — $150!” he shouts, impersonating a police officer. “C’mon, man. They say, ‘Oh, it costs the taxpayers $250 a day to keep one of you guys in jail.’ It don’t cost them a goddamn thing to leave me alone right now,” he says illustrating many of the vagrants’ most basic of desires.
The film illustrates how the homeless put their sweat and toil into building their own little shantytown, their own dysfunctional community of outcasts.
One even manages to build himself a castle over a couple of years using cement and scraps of found objects. Another makes it his goal to fix up and set an old boat afloat.
By the end of the film, the viewer is left hoping for the impossible, that the “bums” are left to their “paradise.”
But this is not a feel-good film with a utopian happy ending. This is a film grounded in reality. Eventually, the fate of the homeless encampment includes being displaced by an unsympathetic City Council and eventually losing the homes they had built and winding up displaced on nearby city streets or in makeshift camps in the wilderness on the outskirts of town.
And, oh yes, three years after the documentary footage was shot, the city still hadn’t gotten around to building that park.
Bum’s Paradise is scheduled to be screened at 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 8th, at Seven Dudley Cinema a.k.a. Sponto Gallery, 7 Dudley Ave., Venice.
Admission is free.
Information, (310) 306-7330.