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Issue Date:  November 3, 2006

Hollywood and poverty

Filmmaker puts the power to film at the service of the poor

Burbank, Calif.

It’s a warm September evening, and the idyllic streets of downtown Burbank are quiet. I walk with filmmaker Gerry Straub past the corner of Magnolia Boulevard and Hollywood Way, and he points in the direction of Warner Bros. and NBC studios, where “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” is taped, just a few blocks away. We cross the street and enter a modest, low-slung building, and we sit down in Straub’s windowless office. Straub’s photography -- sizeable, framed black-and-whites -- covers the walls from top to bottom. Everywhere I turn, I see beautiful, humble human faces -- the faces of the poor in Peru, Kenya, India and Philadelphia. These are not the typical images of “beautiful downtown Burbank,” where billboards splashed with celebrities line the nearby freeways, and blockbuster, multimillion-dollar films are being made around the corner. Gerry Straub may work in Hollywood’s epicenter, but he has all but completely left its trappings behind. Since turning his back on a successful, lucrative, 30-year career in television 10 years ago, Gerry Straub has committed himself to putting the power of film at the service of poor people.

“I make movies no one wants to see, with money I don’t have,” Straub jokes. Straub has produced eight documentaries chronicling the plight of the poor in 11 international locales such as Peru, El Salvador, the Philippines and Kenya, as well as in the poverty-ridden ghettos of Los Angeles and Philadelphia. To say no one wants to see his movies, however, is a bit of a stretch. Straub and his work have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, and he appeared on the cover of The New York Times’ Arts section on Christmas Day 2004. The University of Notre Dame, the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and scores of other universities, high schools and parishes have screened his films.

Hard to watch

They may be sought after, but there’s no denying that many of Straub’s films are difficult to watch. “Embracing the Leper,” for example, features a heartbreaking look at a subset of the 45,000 lepers living in Manaus, Brazil, in the heart of the Amazon region. “Rescue Me,” a journey through Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a 10-block ghetto inhabited by more than 10,000 homeless people living in tents, features a staggering number of women and children. Straub doesn’t shield his viewers from sickening squalor.

“This is the real reality TV,” Straub said. “Give me the ‘Survivor’ cast and put them on Skid Row. Everything else is not reality at all.”

But Straub doesn’t make these films solely for shock value. And he has no political agenda -- the language of policy, legislation and voting directives is conspicuously absent from his films. Straub’s goal is in fact spiritual. Quite simply, he hopes that his viewers see the face of God in the poor and in hearing their stories, will sense the interconnectedness of humanity. Both of these goals stem from the life of Straub’s spiritual role model, St. Francis of Assisi.

“My goal is to make the poor real; it’s not policy,” said Straub, a secular Franciscan. “I’m not here to make you feel bad, to depress you, to lay a guilt trip on you. I’m here to tell you a story, to share what I’ve seen.”

Straub’s films, in true Franciscan fashion, are laced with language that couples contemplation and action. In an epilogue to his film “Poverty and Prayer” titled “What Do I Do?” Straub issues no injunction other than encouraging people to turn to their own prayer lives for answers.

“I stress the importance of being still, of making time for silence in your life, of seeing how God is prompting you to respond to poverty,” he said. “The films are heavy and can feel sad, but the important thing is to begin to enter into it. I always recommend that people do something tangible so they have some actual face-to-face contact with the poor -- volunteer at a soup kitchen, a shelter or some practical experience.”

Straub’s films are part documentary, part meditation. He found the inspiration for that balance in the life of St. Francis whose journey Straub chronicled alongside his own in the book The Sun and Moon Over Assisi (St. Anthony Messenger, 2000). Sun and Moon was named the year’s Best Spirituality Book by the Catholic Press Association in 2001. Straub’s black-and-white photographs of the poor were published in his second book, When Did I See You Hungry? (St. Anthony Messenger, 2002). Martin Sheen narrated Straub’s film with the same title.

It was St. Francis’ example, and the reflection it prompted, that caused Straub to make a dramatic career change. Beginning at age 19, Straub launched a glamorous, glittery 30-year career in television production in New York and Los Angeles, working with A-list Hollywood talent including Demi Moore, Alec Baldwin and Teri Hatcher. He produced wildly successful soap operas in the 1980s including “General Hospital,” “Capitol” and “The Doctors.” But he gradually became disillusioned with daytime dramas. One day, seeing his name on a television show’s credits, an unsettling question popped into his mind.

“I thought, ‘Who would watch this crap?’ ” Straub said. “It was creative energy in the service of what?”

Van Gogh and St. Francis

He took his Hollywood earnings and set out to research a novel on the interplay between creativity and spirituality, exploring the lives of Vincent van Gogh and St. Francis of Assisi. His research on St. Francis led him to a Franciscan friary in Rome, where, one day, sitting in the friary’s chapel, he read Psalm 63 and felt something profound overtake him.

“It was my revelation,” he said. “To get close to God you have to get close to the poor. I had a moment of conversion in church so profound that, 11 years later, I still can’t explain it. The genuineness of it is very, very real for me.”

Straub spent the next five years writing Sun and Moon.

“The hardest thing for me to get was not Francis’ love for the poor, but his love for poverty itself,” Straub said.

While completing Sun and Moon he returned to film, producing “We Have a Table for Four Ready” in 1997. The film tells the story of the St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen run by the Franciscan friars in Philadelphia, and has aired several times on PBS television. He then traveled extensively overseas, visiting slums around the globe and filming their stories, producing six more films. To secure financial backing for filming, postproduction and travel, in 2002 Straub established the San Damiano Foundation, named after the Italian church where St. Francis had a divine encounter. He returned to the St. Francis Inn a second time in late 2005 to make his eighth film, “Room at the Inn.”

Franciscan spirituality continues to shape Straub’s filmmaking process. He takes a contemplative stance when behind the camera, which means in large part that he takes his time. The opening scene in “Room at the Inn” is a prolonged close-up of a homeless man warming himself over a heating grate on the sidewalk.

“There’s two and a half minutes before there is a sound,” Straub said. “I never would have done that with General Hospital.”

Straub says he has been “criticized relentlessly” for the length of his films. (“Rescue Me” stretches over three hours, while “Room at the Inn” is two-and-a-half hours long.) When he’s invited for speaking engagements at churches and schools, people often tell him he won’t have time to show an entire film.

It takes time

“Life would be so much easier for me if I just made them short,” he said.

Straub said he refuses to shorten his films because he views their length as an integral part of experiencing them.

“In our culture everything has to be reduced to bumper stickers and sound bites,” he said. “My thought is that to have a real experience, to be really transformed, you have to enter into the world we create, and that takes time.”

Straub takes his time with the filming, he says, because pointing a camera at poor people is something that has to be done delicately.

“I try to spend time with people before photographing them,” he said. “I don’t take pictures; I receive them. I’ve tried to learn to engage people, to share a moment with them. Somehow, they sense I’m not there to exploit them, but to help them.”

After shooting “Room at the Inn” in Philadelphia, he returned to Burbank with 120 hours of footage to edit, a process that took six months. Such painstaking attention comes at a cost. At 59, an age when many professionals are considering powering down their careers, Straub hasn’t had two consecutive days off in five years.

“I’m not a workaholic,” Straub insists. He says he draws strength from his morning reflection time from 5-6:30 a.m., when he prays the Liturgy of the Hours and makes time for spiritual reading.

Straub’s schedule is grueling, and filming in the slums is not without risks. When he was filming “Rescue Me” on Skid Row, someone punched him in the back, and someone else threw a pipe at him. Straub was chased, he says, “fortunately, by the only man in L.A. I could outrun.”

He logs long hours on airplane flights to faraway nations even though he hates to fly. When he’s staying in the slums, he misses the luxuries and conveniences of home.

“I don’t want to be more than a block away from Starbucks, and I go places where there’s no clean water,” he said.

Financial woes also provide a stress. The savings from his “General Hospital” years dried up long ago, and his personal and professional finances are often precarious. Straub does not charge a fee for his speaking engagements. The San Damiano Foundation’s operating costs total $18,000 a month, and the foundation has only $3,000 a month in pledged donations.

“Every month we’re in the hole -- it does stress me,” Straub said. Many times, just as Straub feared he would need to close his doors, generous financial donations have poured in. He admits he’s periodically had to compose “begging letters” to those on the foundation’s mailing list.

‘This may benefit you’

But Straub’s labors have reaped many intangible rewards and some tangible accolades. He receives e-mails and letters almost daily from people who have been touched by his films. He has received two honorary doctorates. Harcourt, an educational publishing company, will begin distributing his films next year. After “We Have a Table for Four Ready” was broadcast several times on PBS, the St. Francis Inn received enough monetary donations to double the size of its facility.

“When Gerry was first filming, he said, ‘Maybe this will benefit you too,’ ” said Franciscan Fr. Michael Duffy, who works at the St. Francis Inn. “I said, ‘Yes, that’s nice,’ but I personally did not think it was going to happen. Soup kitchens in ghettos are not something too many people pay attention to. But our phone rang off the hook for weeks with people calling from California, Illinois and Florida. The film didn’t even have our phone number, so people really wanted to find us.

“Ninety-eight percent of Americans have probably never spoken to a poor person,” Duffy said. “They’ve heard about them, read about them. They know they exist, but they’ve never talked to them, never heard them tell their story. Gerry is concerned with the poorest of the poor, and those are the people who are speaking in his films.”

Straub is currently editing and writing narrations for three other films: a profile of Jesuit peace activist John Dear, an interfaith film centering on Muslims and Christians, and a documentary about a Capuchin-run soup kitchen in inner-city Detroit.

Though the peacemaking and interfaith films mark a point of departure from his usual subject matter, Straub says inviting the poor to tell their stories will always be his first priority.

“In serving the poor you see the richness in their lives,” he said. “You see life in its fullness. In the slums, you see real life, extraordinary acts of kindness. We have so much, we have no need for God. In the slums, all they have is God. It’s quite inspiring.”

Renée LaReau is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio.

Related Web sites
The San Damiano Foundation
A sample of Gerry Straub’s video work will be available when this story is posted on

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2006

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