The documentary "Street Paper" is a good example of why we need film festivals. The feature project, which made its world premiere at the 43rd installation of the Nashville Film Festival, covers The Contributor, the most circulated "street newspaper" in the country.
Demand to see the film prompted festival organizers to move the screening to a larger theater at the venue, and those who paid $12 a ticket not only supported the festival but also got to see local talent focusing on a local story.
In the documentary, Belmont University alumnus and director Christopher Roberts profiles the newspaper, which focuses on the homeless population and homelessness issues. The majority of the film features the paper's vendors, who are themselves currently or formerly homeless.
We meet quite a few vendors – top-selling vendor Jasen Howard, for example – in the context of the paper's almost meteoric rise in popularity in 2010. The film's timeframe revolves around production and distribution of the September 2010 issue, which is breaking all records for the paper.
Roberts avoids a narrator and lets the newspaper's movers and shakers tell the story through interviews, observational footage and a few title cards.
In addition to vendors, we spend time with Tom Wills, the paper's director of vending. Wills is a straight shooter. Methodical. Inspiring. Also giving context to the paper's history and production is Tasha French, The Contributor's executive director.
Vendors get 15 free papers to sell, and they can buy more for $.25 a copy. The price per copy is $1. Tips to vendors are allowed, but they may not be solicited. Nor may vendors sell other items on the job, or buy papers on behalf of an untrained vendor.
So, there are rules for vendors, and Wills is seen as the enforcer. He impresses on vendors at one meeting that ignoring or breaking the rules will jeopardize the entire enterprise.
"Street Paper" doesn't include criticism of the paper from critics themselves. In other words, we hear French or some of the vendors talk about complaints they've heard. But as for hearing them firsthand, either Roberts didn't ask or no one would speak on camera.
Complaints about the paper have been varied, and they have centered less on the paper's content and more on its distribution. Residents in various parts of Nashville have complained about vendors smoking, vendors using cell phones, vendors on the sidewalks.
The newspaper's response has itself been an education for all involved. Smoking: Yes, it's bad, and some vendors (like other citizens) are addicted. Cell phones: When vendors begin earning money, connectivity is something they crave and prioritize. Sidewalks: See the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Contributor culture emphasizes that selling the paper is a job – one with the potential to get vendors into housing. For some vendors, that has already happened.
A few vendors are able to mix geographic strategy with developing customer relationships to emerge as top sellers and secure a place to live. (The Contributor website says 35 percent of current vendors have secured housing since joining the paper.)
Others aren't able to afford housing, at least not yet, but are able to develop a financial footing of some sort. All who embrace the paper talk about it as a responsibility.
"Street Paper" is paced well, and some of the sadder vendor stories – like domestic violence, mental illness, being held up at knifepoint – are matched by their wit.
For all the difficulty of street living, the persistence of a sense of humor – at least among some – is truly remarkable. See Chris Scott, who camps in the woods, writes songs and poetry, and sells the paper – though not as well as he would like.
The documentary works to show its audience that vendors are "micro-business owners" who are working to improve their lot in life. More important, however, it works to show viewers that vendors are people, too.
"Street Paper" stands in contrast to the stories that swirl about all that is wrong with media. It's an independent documentary – and a good one – about a newspaper that's thriving, enlightening, enlivening.
The First Amendment may save us yet.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer's note: Nothing objectionable.
Director: Christopher Roberts
Cast: Tom Wills, Tasha French, Jasen Howard, Jerry Andreasen, Karren Andreasen, Renee Sawyer, Chris Scott, James Meeks.
The movie's website is here.