When first meeting Rachel Fleischer, her innocent, girl-next-door appearance may lead you to wonder why this nice Jewish girl from a good home would spend her weekends among the indigent population of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. The reason can be found in the young director’s documentary film, “Without a Home,” which follows the anguished lives of the homeless and confronts many preconceived notions about them.
For Fleischer, it comes down to her core values: “Tikkun olam, the idea of helping people and repairing the world, has always been, as far as I can remember, a big part of who I am,” she says. “And one of the things that I really love about Judaism is that it’s so much a part of our culture to help other people and give back. I think it’s a very human idea, but I also think it’s a very Jewish idea to want to give back.”
Fleischer was raised in West Hollywood in what she describes as “a show-business family,” where Judaism was always close to her heart, but more culturally than religiously. Attending temple on High Holy Days is still a very spiritual experience for her, and as she’s gotten older, Judaism has become more important in her life. Her mother, an interior designer, was raised Orthodox, and her father is actor/comedian Charles Fleischer, best-known as the voice of Roger Rabbit in the Steven Spielberg-produced film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Fleischer was first bitten by the entertainment bug as a child, visiting her father on that film’s set. She was encouraged, particularly by her father, to explore her creativity. “I would put on little plays at home using my younger sister and perform them for my father’s show-biz friends, like Sean Penn,” Fleischer recalls.
Her journey to making a documentary about the homeless also began at an early age. Growing up in Los Angeles, she was frequently exposed to the homeless population, observing them from the back seat of the family car. “I always noticed homeless people living on the streets,” she says. “I didn’t know why they were out there — cold, hungry and alone — and I was on the other side, with food to eat, a bed to sleep in, protected by the love of my parents.
“Despite our immediate differences, I felt a strong connection to these people whom I had never met.”
After graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, she moved to New York for a while. When she returned to Los Angeles for a job on the crew of the film “Sideways,” Fleischer decided to act upon her interest in Los Angeles’ homeless population, which numbers about 90,000. “It was a combination of wanting to deal with this curiosity and fascination that I had, and wanting to create something and make a movie. I think this thing had been building and building in me for so long, and I’d been waiting to do it. After just having been on a film set and seeing a movie getting made, it elevated the hunger in me to make something. But it was really a culmination of my entire life to want to tell these people’s stories.”
Fleischer began shooting her film in 2004, when she was 23, an age she describes as “the formative years for a person, when you really grow up and learn a lot about who you are.” She approached the project simply. “I didn’t need a lot of money to do it. I didn’t need a script. There was something very liberating about knowing I could just get in my car and do this. I had a list of questions that I knew I wanted to ask, so I just started interviewing people and developing relationships over a long period of time.”
She did not plan to become as personally attached as she did to the lives of her subjects, however. “From the moment it started, it was never going to be an objective journalistic approach in the classic sense of the word,” Fleischer said. “The way it happens in the movie was a very organic, natural process. And then, once it started, it accelerated very quickly.” The result is a documentary that tells a highly personal story from the inside out.
Eventually, the project took over her life. “I felt like I had a whole other secret life. I didn’t call my mom that much, because … whenever I would call her I felt like it must be every Jewish mother’s nightmare to hear your kid is roaming around Skid Row with a $3,000 camera.”
For her own part, she wasn’t worried. “I just felt that the feeling of being needed was more powerful than anything I felt that was fearful or frustrating or doubting of what I was doing,” she says. “And as I started getting more involved in these people’s lives, I actually felt like I was helping, but not all the time. Sometimes I didn’t know if I was enabling them and making things worse.”
Making her film provided Fleischer with a new understanding of the homeless, including that many of them suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness or the aftermath of abusive childhoods.
“I had a sense that this was a population that obviously had all these kinds of flaws that I was sheltered from, but in terms of understanding those words — I had no idea. I knew the words ‘mental illness’ and the words ‘drug addiction,’ but in terms of understanding what it meant to these people, I had no idea.”
She hopes her film will help educate the public as well, and she points to Gilbert, one of the subjects, as a prime example.
“There’s this big misconception that these [people] choose to be out there. America has this funny thing, that if you really want it bad enough, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and change your life, and it’s just not true. It’s a lovely idea. But seeing Gilbert high on heroin, living in that tent and knowing that he had children in the foster-care system and his wife was hooking for their drug money, and realizing he wanted help, defied all the stereotypes I had grown up hearing about. I realized that no one in that condition could ever help [himself] up.
“To me, that was such a profoundly unjust thing. I realized there was something very simple to be done, and probably one of the most powerful experiences I had was making a movie about it.”
“Without a Home” was just released on DVD nationwide and will be released on Video on Demand in December. For more information about “Without a Home,” visit www.withoutahomefilm.com.
To purchase “Without a Home,” click here.
For more information on What Can I Do? - the mission is to raise awareness and compassion about homelessness through art and social action. - Go to www.whatcanidocampaign.org