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Pharaoh's Streets: Dartmouth Filmmaker Chronicles Lives of Homeless Amidst L.A. Protests

Posted 08/10/01

This September Jethro Rothe-Kushel, documentary filmmaker and Dartmouth sophomore, will present his film chronicling the lives of dozens of downtown Los Angeles homeless men, women and children at the Silverlake Film Festival in the L.A. area. Rothe-Kushel has spent his sophomore summer putting the finishing touches on the year-long project which he hopes to show this fall in Hanover as well.

The film records the months he spent at Dome Village, a group of 12 geodesic domes in the heart of downtown L.A. that serve as transitional housing. During the 2000 Democratic National Convention, homeless people in downtown L.A. organized a rival National Homeless Convention centered around Dome Village. During the protest Rothe-Kushel recorded the man who had become the focus for his documentary, local activist Ted Hayes, as Hayes was shot by police with rubber bullets.

"I was faced with a moral dilemma," Rothe-Kushel said of the experience. "Do I keep the camera rolling or do I try to help?" As he filmed he asked one police officer for help but was rebuffed by a baton swung. "I had to decide if my role was to intervene with my subject or simply to document the event," he said. Rothe-Kushel kept his camera rolling, an act which resulted in exclusive footage which was immediately uplinked by local news and shown as a headline story on CBS Evening News that night, he said.

The creation of stories through filmmaking has been a passion for Rothe-Kushel since age nine. He participated in California State Summer School for the Arts, a college level film program, in eighth grade. A film he created for a dance group at Dartmouth won second place in the Dartmouth Student film festival this year. A documentary he made on violence won prizes in the San Francisco Student Film Festival in 1995 and the Wired Youth Film Festival in 1996 and was selected for inclusion in the media collection of the Wired Youth Library Exploratorium Media Arts Program in San Francisco in 1997.

"Film has a magical way of affecting people emotionally and intellectually. There is value in storytelling if we're going to make any sense of this messy world," he said. For this project he sought and was awarded a summer research grant from Dartmouth, a program that selects ten students from a class of 1000 freshman to conduct research of their own design.

"I knew I wanted to do something involving poverty in LA because that's where I grew up and what I saw every day. But I didn't have a clear plan," he said. "Everybody was telling me I needed to map out the process, make a storyboard and then go out and shoot. That's not what I wanted. I was lucky that Dartmouth gave me the opportunity to explore things in my own way."

Rothe-Kushel has become fascinated with what he calls "emergent narrative," the process by which chaotic events take the form of stories. As a result, it was not until he began talking with homeless people around Dome Village and met Hayes that the idea for the documentary began to take shape.

A former candidate for mayor and LA City Council and the founder of Dome Village, Hayes became a focus for Rothe-Kushel's documentary. Although briefly hospitalized after being struck, Hayes was not seriously injured by the rubber bullets and quickly recovered to lead demonstrators the next three nights of the Democratic National Convention. To Rothe-Kushel, who comes from a mixed Jewish and Latino background, Hayes seemed to pattern his project after that of Moses of the Old Testament.

"Suddenly, I started seeing everything through that lens," said Rothe-Kushel. "It all related back to my perspective on Moses and the Jewish people living under Pharaoh. The skyscrapers surrounding Dome Village became like pyramids, and the way I saw it, the homeless were slaves. I started to see downtown as what could be called a Pharaotic landscape, an oppressive place, in which many homeless people are forced to live a nomadic life."

The refrain from the old spiritual song "Go Down Moses" kept repeating itself in Rothe-Kushel's mind: "Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go."

The lengths taken to separate public space from the homeless struck him particularly. Rothe-Kushel describes the skyscrapers as "maximum security buildings for the dead." In one scene from the film, barbed wire fences line the screen as Rothe-Kushel follows Tyrone, a homeless veteran, while he rummages through garbage bins in search of bottles and cans. He describes Tyrone and many of the homeless he met this summer as "alchemists -- turning the waste of our society into gold."

A religion major, Rothe-Kushel's religious focus in the film stems at least in part from his Hispanic and Jewish background (his father is Jewish; his mother is half-Mexican and was raised Protestant.) His personal religion he describes as a "shopping cart" of different belief systems.

Through his film, Rothe-Kushel hopes to document the dignity of the people he met. "Most of the people I met last summer were incredibly wise and inspiring individuals. Many were college-educated who became down on their luck. Homelessness is a very difficult pattern to break. It's difficult to go to a job interview when you're dressing out of a shopping cart."

When he finishes his work on the film, tentatively titled, "Pharaoh's Streets: Homelessness and Voices of Providence in the City of Angels, 2000 CE," Rothe-Kushel hopes to air his documentary on PBS. He is looking for a distributor. He plans later to move on to other filmmaking projects, and he recently formed his own production company, called LittleHands, to assist with the creation of new ventures.

"I'm just now taking my first class on documentary filmmaking from Professor Vincent Rocchio at Dartmouth, and I'm learning that a lot of the issues I thought about are issues that all documentary filmmakers have to address all the time." Asked what it was like to take a documentary class only after filming his first documentary, Rothe-Kushel replied, "I guess you could call that on-the-job training."

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