Netflix doc ‘Lead Me Home’ gets to the heart of homelessness in SF and other cities

Co-directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk depict plight of people living on our streets

Debuting Nov. 30 on Netflix, the 39-minute documentary “Lead Me Home” takes on the subject of homelessness in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles by attempting to restore dignity and humanity to those affected.

It’s an extraordinary film, soulful as well as thoughtful.

Speaking via a recent Zoom chat, co-directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk, both based in San Francisco, cite the classic art film “Koyaanisqatsi” as a huge influence on their work.

That 1982 film, directed by Godfrey Reggio, uses beautiful time-lapse cinematography and rich, swirling music by Philip Glass to convey the interconnectedness of human and natural life.

“It’s able to communicate so much, in a cinematic way, in a way that is unspoken. It’s able to seep into your pores, and able to shift your perspective,” says Kos.

In addition to that influence, the filmmakers also employ a cinéma vérité style, which eschews interviews and talking heads in favor of a fly-on-the-wall approach. The combination of these two techniques makes for a powerful viewing experience.

Kos and Shenk met while working together on the documentary “The Island President” (2011), and became fast friends. Shenk says they’ve often talked about making a film like this one, “where we take a big issue and speak from our hearts and our gut, rather than from our intellectual side. This was a film where we always checked in with our heart, whether it was time for a close-up, or time for a zoom out.”

They were inspired by a 2016 New York Times story by Daniel Duane, “The Tent Cities of San Francisco,” which described, for example, how a faucet on the side of a building can become a kitchen.

“When you go into these encampments, these people keep each other safe, there are certain rules and sometimes there are even governments voting on stuff. Faucets become kitchens. Park benches become living rooms. Tents become little dormitories that are sometimes wildly decorated. The stuff we used to just walk by, we started to really see,” says Shenk.

Even though they didn’t want to conduct interviews, the filmmakers lucked out when they were invited to film vulnerability assessments, or standardized questionnaires designed to determine the level of need for service programs for each person.

“It was a small room, maybe 5’ x 5,’ and Jon and I decided to just put the camera in there and then leave the room. We let the people be interviewed by the social worker,” says Kos. “What came out of it was an extraordinary window of life experiences, the heart and soul of someone. It was a great way to get the scope of different experiences.”

One San Francisco man, Luis, is seen talking in one of these assessments, and then we witness his life on the street, sleeping in a tent, reading, bathing at a portable shower facility and even falling in love and finding a job.

Another key component of the film’s success is the robust, dramatic music score by Gil Talmi, as well as audio design by Skywalker Sound’s Pete Horner.

“Every single cue you hear, the basis for that is a sound from the street,” says Kos. “There’s construction, ambulances, the beep from the supermarket when you scan your food. He even used the iconic sound of the BART train. All the sounds when you’re out in the world, the soundtrack of life on the street, that’s what we wanted to use for the music.”

Although “Lead Me Home” — the title comes from a beautiful song by Angel Olsen that closes the film — was filmed in three cities, Shenk and Kos say they wanted it to feel like one universal city.

“We realized that these cities have way more in common than they have differences,” says Shenk. “We really meant for them to blend together and for the viewer to not even know where you are.”

Likewise, the wide array of people viewed in the film become a cast of recognizable, relatable humans. As Shenk points out, when we consider the Great Depression, no one blames the people living in the Shantytowns. Everyone knows that there were other factors, larger economic forces, at fault.

“And today we seem trained to blame the individuals on the street rather than the system that’s set up, leading to the crisis,” Shenk says. “These are our neighbors. They’re living here. Do they have any less right to live here?”

“We really are hoping that the film can be a little bit of a corrective in terms of thinking about who these people are,” he continues, “providing a little humanity and grace for them.”

IF YOU GO

“Lead Me Home”

Directed by Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language

39 minutes

Begins streaming Nov. 30 on Netflix

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