Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Cinequest Films Give Voice to the Dispossessed

Emilio Estevez portrayed a Cincinatti librarian in his latest project, The Public, which was featured in San Jose's annual film fest.

Thanks to Cinequest, the gritty underbellies of Cincinnati and Tucson took over downtown San Jose, in the forms of Emilio Estevez and Brian Jabas Smith, whose films depicted the margins of society without exploitation or judgment.

First of all, a trailer opened up every Cinequest film this year, with a wise man declaring that everyone who journeys through the festival will expect the unexpected. At least for me, this is already a prime characteristic of Cinequest: The unexpected experience that emerges without any possible planning. Weird connections, either professional, artistic or just plain crazy always seem to occur. Serendipitous moments of synchronicity appear on both micro and macro levels, even in a stretch of less than 24 hours.

To wit, Emilio Estevez of Repo Man infamy brought his latest project to the California Theatre, a film he directed and wrote, a masterpiece of social activism in which he played the lead role, a movie simply titled, The Public. It was one of the top five I've ever seen at Cinequest. We witness a dead-on-accurate portrayal of what it's like to work in a major city public library, in terms of the various struggling loiterers and street people who call the building home. The film takes place in the Cincinnati Public Library and Estevez plays one of the managing librarians, who is also a recovering alcoholic and former street person. Not only does his film succeed at depicting homelessness without being exploitative or judgmental, Estevez also nails what it's like from the perspective of main branch librarians, who are far from being just "librarians." They are actually social workers, first responders, job search counselors, research assistants, de facto therapists and any number of professions rolled into one. They are not "sitting around reading books all day," as some barbarians tend to suggest.

In the film, the homeless patrons of the library refuse to leave at closing time, and in protest, they demand the building be converted into a shelter due to the subzero weather outside, thus forcing a stand-off between them and the police. Emilio's character takes the side of the homeless, yet we also get Christian Slater as the insidious mayor exploiting the scenario to get votes, Gabrielle Union as a clueless TV newscaster sensationalizing the story, and Alec Baldwin as the aging musclehead detective trying to run the crisis negotiations. The film nails all of the issues: homelessness, mental health, the importance of libraries and librarians, fake politicians, fake newscasters, and the role that books play in making the world better.

After watching parts of The Public for a second time, I segued down the street to the Martin Luther King Jr., Main Library, a building where, except for the overnight protest, San Jose's equivalent of Emilio's film unfolds on a daily basis. On the day in question, though, a Cinequest event with Tucson Weekly columnist Brian Jabas Smith took over a room on the second floor. Smith writes a column, "Tucson Salvage," about the gritty underside of his hometown, columns he's now compiled into a book of the same name. Via his writing, Smith explores and chronicles local stories of alienated people and places that society has simply forgotten—everyone from legless ex-cons to recovering junkies to mentally challenged boxers.

Brian's wife Maggie created a documentary short film based on his columns, which she screened at the event, but not before he read from a column titled, "Cops and Tweakers." During the event, a few people sauntered over from the computer area of the library and said they were in some sort of homeless or close-to-homeless situation. All implied they never get to tell their stories to empathetic listeners. Each one said he or she identified with those in Smith's film. A fantastic conversation then erupted, with some great back-and-forth taking place. Via this sequence of serendipitous moments, I could not have tuned in any better to the ignored, the forgotten and the unexpected. The two films filled me up with even more gratitude for what I still have in this crazed life.

This is why longtime regulars keep returning to Cinequest. They know. It's the poetic and random connections between people, places and events that make the experience worthwhile.