A certified wingnut runs around screaming on the corner of Telegraph and Durant avenues in South Berkeley, his underwear outside his clothes, a toy medieval shield in one hand, a toy axe in the other. A big furry hat and bomber goggles cover his whole face above his red beard. "The revolution starts now!" he shouts at the nearest student. The man then waves his weapon like a lunatic and flashes the plastic butt cheeks affixed to his boxer shorts.
A well-dressed street dweller says he's working hard toward a doctorate in psychology, specializing in international conflict resolution at Cal. South Africa's apartheid-era government, he says, murdered his wife and their three children.
The characters from My Big Fat Homeless Berkeley Movie appear in Johnny Allen Shaw's dreams sometimes. A twenty-year veteran of the streets, he's spent so much time editing his new documentary that they're constantly with him. Medieval warrior Matthew Silver and his revolution. White-haired enabler Mitch Mitchner dementia in a dress. Prophet Kennethra relaying the message he received through his dog. But then Shaw's crystal-clear blue eyes snap awake. It's early on a March morning and he's huddled in the corner of a carport just south of the Cal campus.
Shaw sits up stiff and dirty and fully clothed in an Irish cap, black scarf, black blazer, black sweater, slacks, and boots. The 35-year-old looks around his auto shelter, then rolls up his air mattress and sleeping bag with a groan. His lower back aches and his belly rumbles as he stashes his gear in a makeshift wall cubby. Except for some milk crates filled with books, he can't leave any evidence that he's slept here since 2005. By the time the carport's spaceholders arrive, Shaw has to be out of sight. He gathers his things in an oversize black briefcase and hustles down the sidewalk toward a free breakfast at Trinity Church, which regulars call the "Wingnut Breakfast" or just "Wingnut."
Even though Shaw has been homeless since he was a teen, has no intention of ever being otherwise, and is congenitally broke and unemployable, he has produced a powerful feature-length documentary that's available worldwide. Against the odds, he managed to scrounge up a digital camcorder and three separate laptops, shoot more than 31 hours of raw footage in 2005 and 2006, and edit it into the 52-minute doc, which he finished late last year. The resourceful video nut went on to press two hundred DVDs, of which he's sold about three-quarters on the street and through local retailers such as Amoeba and Rasputin. He recently secured distribution through IndieFlix.com, which will sell his movie for $10 to anyone in the world. Entry deadlines loom for many film festivals, if only Shaw can scrape together the fees.
The world has plenty of wannabe filmmakers aiming for social justice with depressing footage of homeless people telling their stories. Pras, a member of hip-hop group the Fugees, even tried to film himself living on a dollar a day in Los Angeles last year. But Shaw differs from the pack. For one, he's the first person to get this far while actually living the life. What's more, My Big Fat Homeless Berkeley Movie is a bizarre sort of triumph at times very funny, and brutally sad, but never didactic or preachy. Shaw never appears or speaks in the film, which wanders plotlessly through eighteen vérité vignettes depicting individual lives on the street.
Embracing the gonzo ethic of "shoot first and find meaning later," Shaw's documentary is cultural anthropology in the raw, capturing the exotic people, customs, and ideas of a subculture that hides in plain sight. Where most might overlook, ignore, or judge, the veteran hobo director hits record and waits for something interesting to happen. And it often does.
Yet Shaw's success, as admittedly modest as it has been, puts him on a collision course with the straight world he has avoided for so long. After decades of avoiding the system of "plague-makers," he now has need of a bank account, which would require an address. He also wants a new camera and a more powerful laptop for a planned sequel, not to mention cash to cover film festival dues and production expenses (true to form, Shaw hand-packages his DVDs). At any given moment, however, he has just a few tattered dollar bills to his name. Shaw may be sane, but his chosen lifestyle conflicts with his long-term ambitions. Logic says you can't be a famous filmmaker and still live in a carport. Shaw respectfully disagrees.
The line for Trinity's Wingnut Breakfast begins forming at 6 a.m. in a Bancroft Way parking lot, and soon fills with chatty indigents. Shaw slinks across the lot without saying much to anyone, and blends into the single-file line, whose demographic favors fiftyish white men with grizzled beards and matted hair. "It's the culture," Shaw comments of the male-heavy crowd. "Women are more likely to be taken in and rescued. Besides, men are obnoxious and sometimes violent. I wouldn't take a man in."
The filmmaker aims to avoid long conversations and petty fights with the chronically homeless who live in places like People's Park. Berkeley is known for its unusually hardcore street population. They come to the city for its mild weather and abundant services, and stay because police, merchants, residents, and local government tolerate them better than people do elsewhere.
Shaw may showcase some of the town's more deranged folks in his movie, but he doesn't count himself among them. "There are some certain homeless people that just like the underground life people that aren't fucked up and manage to survive and keep moving," he explains.
Shaw has been one of those since he ran away from his home in Puyallup, Washington, at age fifteen. It was 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded. The potent mix of alcohol and adolescence drove the only child away from life with his mother, grandmother, and a perpetually drunk grandfather. "I knew the whole system was lying to me," Shaw says. "I wanted to party and drink."
The annual fair in Shaw's home county left a deep imprint on the young man. "For those few weeks, the whole world changed," he remembers. "The world I wanted was one where there was no boxes, no cars, and no homes. Instead of it just being a carnival, it would be life."
Most kids hit adolescence, catch a whiff of the world's contradictions, and simply dye their hair black in rebellion. Very few hit the road like Woody Guthrie, never to return. Shaw even abandoned his birth name. He says he wasn't abused physically or sexually, but that drinking simply solidified his young resolve. "My grandpa was Native American and I got the alcoholism gene the worst way you can get it," he says.
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