Filmmaker and photographer Alexo Wandael returns to work to document the reality of homelessness on LA’s Skid Row. Following the short film, “To My Pink Lady”, Wandael trains the camera on the eyes, hands, and voices of the residents of a community ignored by the more fortunate with “Tomato Soup in Skid Row” (LANYMA films). Thanks to the support of Monique Noel (producer, member of LA CAN, Los Angeles Community Action Network) and Pete White (producer, founder, and Executive Director of LA CAN, Los Angeles Community Action Network), the documentary takes on the authenticity of a raw and necessary narrative. We are confronted with “a moral slap in the face for the middle class looking out the window” amidst the wealth that California represents to the world. Wandael combines his authorship as a photographer and architect with a neo-realist-inspired yet conceptual vision.
The actor Yari Gugliucci becomes a vehicle for consumerist reality. He eats up the tomato soup, filling the silent distance between those who can act and those who suffer against their will. Being homeless is not a choice, as Trump might think. Wandael replays some of his recordings to illustrate the establishment’s political inability to take action. In addition to questions for the director, La Voce di New York has created a video panel discussion with Daniela Ovi (editor and producer), Yari Gugliucci (actor), Monique Noel, and Pete White (LA CAN), which you can find at the end of the article.”
The first few minutes of the documentary are about some of the photographs you took. Where did you start to build the idea of “Tomato Soup on Skid Row”?
“I’ve placed my photographic work from 2016 into the documentary as an overture. The documentary structure has become operatic: there is an overture, the first act, and an interlude. The idea came about when I first moved to LA and walked through Skid Row, an area next to Downtown where there are so many people who live on the streets. There are blocks and blocks of tents. You can’t even walk on the sidewalks. Coming from New York, I had never seen anything like it. The feeling I got when we passed there was like a war zone, almost like a refugee camp. I was in Afghanistan in 2012 with the Italian army for reportage, and Skid Row made me relive the feelings I had there. In 2016 I decided to do a photo project inspired by the great Richard Avedon: I took a white background and went there. I fixed it on the walls and asked the homeless if I could take a portrait of them. This project, which became a book, brought me in contact with these people, and already I was inspired by the idea of creating video content that would give voice to their stories. After my first short film, I started working on it in earnest. It’s a documentary because the stories are all true, but there’s also a plotline with the actor, Yari Gugliucci, which makes it a docu-film.”
The symbol of your film is Campbell’s soup, and you also use a commercial of it as an interlude. How and why did you appropriate this symbol?
“We decided to use an old Campbell’s commercial that interested me because Warhol had already used it and elevated it to an icon of American society. I liked using that symbol and deconstructing its meaning. The poster in the film is a reinterpretation of Warhol’s tomato soup can, but it’s destroyed and dripping, and you can’t tell if it’s soup or blood. The lettering is no longer Campbell’s but Skid Row. ”
How did you organize the story selection and casting process?
“The casting was the central part that took the most time. I did it personally with the help of LA CAN. Through them, I was able to form groups. We separated into men and women to make the process easier: we started with about twenty people per group, almost once a week for almost three months. I met with these people, and we talked about the project. Each week the group got smaller, and by the end, we had a group of people who were willing to speak in front of the camera, which is not so easy given the trauma they may have experienced.”
“The interesting part for me was telling and feeding a myth that most people believe: that people who become homeless have mental, health or drug problems. Then the numbers I gave at the end of the film are very clear: 30% of American homeless people have these problems. The other 70% became homeless for other reasons, like poverty, lack of affordable housing. These are systemic problems of society compared to personal problems like drug addiction. I want to express with the film that these people were like all of us, they had jobs, families, and for one reason or another, they felt compelled to deal with homelessness. That’s the core of the narrative that I care about. It’s a condition that anyone can fall into.”
Your documentary is a moral slap in the face to a middle class that looks out the window and doesn’t take action. The wealth of Los Angeles stands in stark contrast to its poverty.
“California, which has the fifth-largest GDP in the world, is a rich state. Knowing that a state like California fails to address the problem of homelessness is mind-blowing. There is no will to solve this problem. There is a lack of culture, education, and awareness. The documentary is, as you say, a slap in the face that we need to give ourselves. All people can help, but who needs to help is the government, through a legislation of a system that can and should help. This issue is a different pandemic, a social pandemic that has been around for years. Some people talk about this problem as a situation that has gotten worse in the last couple of years, but it hasn’t.”
There are recordings of Trump repeating this very concept. It’s an extraordinary recording that shows that one of the most influential people in the world had a chance to change things but didn’t.
“I liked using this clip because on the other side is the weight of Keyo’s statement, ‘No one chooses or chooses to be homeless’ while Trump’s audio says that some people may like being homeless. There’s too much distance between politics and reality that they don’t talk to each other. I liked creating those extremes.”
Art comes to where people are trying to survive. That’s another aspect of your work. All the protagonists are connected to art in some way or produce art, like music or poetry.
“That was a nice coincidence, and it underlines how art, music, and visual art, in general, manage to unite people and give them a sense of belonging. I think that’s very important. Even though I didn’t realize it until later, it wasn’t intentional on my part.”
Earlier, we talked about contrasts by referring to Trump, now let’s move on to the actor in the documentary, Yari Gugliucci. When we first spoke, you told me that Yari represents all of us, first caught up in the stories and then happy to return to his everyday life.
“Since no one walks down the street in Los Angeles, we all see a world of poverty from our cars. Yari is sitting in his car and he’s lucky (or unlucky) to be invited to listen to the stories of those he observes. The question is, what will Yari do after hearing these stories? What will be left for him to do? This is not a Hollywood movie; there is no happy ending. The resulting poem I wrote is about the United States and America, and highlights some contrasts that should prompt us to action, unresolved. So this might be able to intrigue us and lead us to get more information.”
Your documentary comes at a time when racism is constantly debated.
“That’s the elephant in the room, you don’t have to mention that, but you can tell from the film, the sequences, the people’s stories, and the numbers. Most of the people on Skid Row are black. The documentary doesn’t just talk about homelessness. And it talks about a systemic problem like racism.”
The credits “shout out” a quote from Nelson Mandela. Basically, not having a home is not a choice, any more than slavery was; it’s about men, and only men can solve it.
“That’s a phrase I love, and it says it all. It’s about one of our problems: poverty created by men, like apartheid, slavery. Man has managed to solve apartheid and slavery in a certain way. He should be able to do it with poverty as well.”
Your direction is authorial, visionary, although it is a realistic and authentic narrative.
“I am the product of eleven years of architecture, eight years of fashion photography with an interval of reportage photography; the union of all these is the origin of my direction. There is a specific concept. It’s a surreal situation, standing in front of people telling tragic stories while eating soup. The idea was to create a consumerist world looking at another world. I wanted to bring back that voyeuristic instinct to keep eating up the soup and listening. I think it’s very expressive of our society today, and we continue to consume despite everything. I like the element of fantasy, the conceptual and the symbolic ones, in this silent distance.”