Kirsten Kelly is a Calvin College grad whose latest documentary, The Homestretch, follows three teens who are homeless in Chicago. With empathy and compassion, the film demonstrates the variety of circumstances that plunge so many young people into homelessness. The Homestretch will air on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series on April 13. Kirsten took a break from her busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Q. How long did it take you to make the film?
A. From start to finish it took five years—which included filming, producing, fundraising, and building the network of organizations and leaders to make sure the advocacy component was strong when the film was released.
Q. How did you find the people that you followed for the film?
A. We probably went down the road with 12 different kids—all of whom helped us tell this story and who are in the fabric of this film. But Kasey, Roque, and Anthony’s stories each resonated so deeply, were so inspiring and, together, fit a complex structure of the reasons youth become homeless.
Q. Were you surprised by what you found out as you created the documentary or had research adequately prepared you for the experience?
A. We were continually surprised that no one was seeing this as an immediate crisis to bring to the forefront of discussions in politics or education. We wanted to help inspire urgency to bring more support to these kids who were severely at risk. And we wanted to break the hugely negative stereotype that most people conjure when they hear the phrase “homeless youth.” The majority of the kids we were seeing were not “kids in raggedy clothes, on drugs, sleeping under a bridge.” Rather we were meeting kids who were in motion, trying to build a future, and who would often hide their situations and not ask for the help they needed because they were embarrassed or didn’t want to go into a system that had previously let them down.
Q. These young people go through some serious trauma. Was it difficult to stay behind the camera and not get too personally involved in their lives? Or did you get involved?
A. We decided early on that we were “human beings” first and foremost, and that we were creating intensive bonds of trust with the kids we were working with. And we never wanted to exploit them and always wanted it to be a good thing for them to feel empowered to be involved in the project. We were lucky enough to have very good social workers, counselors, and teachers along the way to guide us in these relationships and who could continue to be a source of support for the kids we were working with.
Q. Do you stay in touch with any of the subjects?
A. All three of the youth involved in the film, as well as the teacher who brought Roque into her family, have continued to be advocates on the road with us and the film.
Q. What is the most fun part of being a filmmaker? What is the hardest? The most meaningful?
A. The most fun part is that you are constantly using so many different kinds of skills in one day to produce and direct a documentary. I enjoy the challenge of this. And the incredibly caring, passionate people you get to engage with along the way is a pretty great perk as well. The hardest part is sustaining the energy—it’s a long, long marathon and you are the one who is leading the charge. So you often feel that you are the only one pushing this huge boulder up an even huger mountain.
Over the course of five years on an emotionally intense project, you have to really be mindful of your pace and energy so you can keep going. And you have to take care of yourself and the people around you, because it is such a traumatic subject. The most meaningful thing is that I think I’ve gained a huge amount of perspective and empathy by spending so much time with these kids who have been through so much and who are from such different worlds.
Spending so much time filming in these communities of extreme poverty here in America was incredibly eye-opening. I have had to face how much we, as a society, judge these kids without really meaning to. And I hope I can help bring a more empathetic perspective to bring greater understanding and support to these kids and communities.
Q. Have you started on your next project? What will it be?
A. Currently I am directing a new off-Broadway play. But in terms of film, it has been an intense five years, in the middle of which my son was born. I’m excited to take a little time in my life to recover, spend time with my family, and continue to advocate with The Homestretch. But . . . there are always interesting projects swirling around, and I’m not sure what will take front and center in the year ahead. I do know that my film partner, Anne, and I want to do another film. It’s just finding the right story.