Dignity Harbor, and an interview with director Mike Gualdoni

After the sealing of a tunnel in St. Louis, many of the city's homeless who took shelter there were forced to find another solution to survive. This came in the form of a handful of encampments along the Mississippi River. Among these encampments were Sparta, Hopeville, and Dignity Harbor. Known for being the more organized and civil of the three, Dignity Harbor's residents were a collection of people from many different places around the US, some with tumultuous histories and problems, and some just going through a stretch of bad luck. This captivating documentary looks at the honest labor and want of community that founded Dignity Harbor, and the internal and external issues that led to its eventual demise.

A film that is at once warm with spirit and reserved in judgment, Dignity Harbor invites you reevaluate your perspective on your life, and how you view the lives of others, be they equally or less fortunate than you. What is home? What is family? How much can a city or a government be responsible for the ultimate comfort, confidence, and security of its citizens? What actually makes us follow "the way of the world"? Food for thought as you watch the film here.

It was great to chat with one half of the directing team of Mike Gualdoni and Zach White on the making of the film.

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CR: What was the deciding moment or factor that convinced you to make the film?

MG: When I first saw things down there I couldn't believe it was going on. To see those people living like that -- and this was before they had all those wooden huts built up. At the time they just had tents, and winter was coming. I couldn't believe what was happening in my own backyard. I'd actually just watched All The President's Men in my journalism class, and I had that college kid fire and I said, okay I have to expose something, use my talents. And that's what drove me to go down there and make the film. 

CR: Did you get to stay with the people at Dignity Harbor while filming? 

MG: Well, when Zach and I were going hard at it we were going down there two or three times a week. And we live in St. Charles, which is about 30 or 40 minutes away, so we were going there quite a bit for the distance we had to travel. We planned on staying the night there once, which is another story, but we were there quite a bit.

CR: What happened on the night you planned to stay there? 

MG: It was about a week after Bruce had beaten up and mugged George, which is in a scene which didn't make the final film. Bruce had a lot of issues, and when we'd heard he was gone we felt comfortable enough to stay the night. But when we showed up with our stuff, sure enough we see Bruce back at his tent. So we came back another night and we slept in the kitchen, which was quiet and all but it was kind of eerie. There was a guy named Cowboy, who appears in a few shots in the film but he didn't talk on camera, and he was shining a light at us in part so that we could see, but we couldn't see him. It was like an interrogation scene, he was sitting there with this light right in your eyes. I didn't sleep much.
L-R: Zach, O.G., Mike

CR: In one section of the film, Al mentions that O.G. is not the person he presents himself to be, and has his own motives and hides a lot of the truth. Did this come as a surprise to you or did you also notice inconsistencies in how Dignity Harbor was being run?

MG: Well that was part of the reason I jumped on this documentary as well. O.G. introduced the camp as saying it was a camp for single, abused women, it was a great place, a wonderful thing. And we thought wow, this is a great story! But as time went on you start noticing -- wait a minute -- there are 3 women here, most of them have boyfriends. So you start questioning O.G.'s ideas. At the time I was taking an abrnormal psychology course, and I don't remember what kind of disorder it was, but the symptoms were delusions of grandeur and all this. And O.G. would say things like he had 200,000 supporters and all this, so after a while we started to see how he was talking his camp up to get more resources and make himself look better. 

CR: An interesting thing that comes up implicitly and explicitly in the film is the definition of a normal life. What defines acceptable living conditions, or family, or community. Al mentioned how he wanted to just get back into the "rat race" again, while others at the camp were feeling discouraged about how holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving are merely high points. Then it was back to the hum-drum of scrounging to exist -- despite the fact that they had food, shelter, and people to call family at the camp. Did you or anyone else talk about the definitions of normalcy and ways of life that are not what mainstream society says is a "normal" way to live?

MG: I think the closest it came to that was the interview with Flower, who was the former mayor of Hopeville. I had to edit parts of it out because I felt that the conversation was taking the focus away from Dignity Harbor, even though I did want to show how Occupy was happening at the time, and that people were having many discussions about different ways of life. She had valid points; that people had been living the way they were for thousands of years, and it works. But interestingly enough, the city of St. Louis is hell-bent on eliminating these camps, and relocating and bulldozing others around the city. I networked with a guy at Big Sky who lives out in Portland, and there's a camp out there called Dignity Village that's been going strong for about 10 years. Portland is actually promoting the idea of tent cities and encampments. As long as health codes are being followed and things are up to par, why not. I thought that was an interesting contrast to what our city is doing over here, and that Portland considers keeping a place for encampments. 

CR: Is Bill Siedhoff still working with the Department of Human Services?

MG: Yes, he is. They're actually working really hard. The department is about 6 years into their 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. They sent me a booklet they put together with an outline of what they're trying to do. They're trying to eliminate the encampments, and plan to put up more shelters along strategic points around the city. We'll see what happens as the years go by but it sounds like they've got a plan. I think it has a chance. They definitely need to upkeep the shelters and keep them organized.

CR: Did they see the film or have you heard from Bill or the office after its release? 

MG: Yes, they thought it did well, which was an honor to hear. One of my worries in editing film was that I wanted to tell the story correctly, not upset the homeless population, not go Michael Moore on the city, and keep it as a fair documentary. Everyone that's seen it thinks the film did a good job of telling the story fairly. 

CR: What did you learn while making Dignity Harbor?

MG: It opened me up a lot. I was never an asshole to homeless people but I still ignored them, like most people do, going "well if I ignore it, it's not there." But I learned how to appreciate what I've got -- I have food, a home, my family, what do I have to complain about? It did a lot for me; it made me a stronger person to tackle that project. It was a two-year project and I'd never done anything on that kind of scale before. It debuted at the Student Academy Awards, and to sit in a theater in a venue like that was just amazing. 

CR: So what kind of projects are you working on now? 

MG: I've got another project that's been about a year in the making. I'm working as director of photography on Dan Parris' new film, the director of Give a Damn?. It's called Hit Man to Hero, about a guy named Oscar in Nicaragua who had an abusive childhood. He saw his brother killed, got involved in crime and drug smuggling and trafficking and all this. And one day he had an epiphany picking up his girlfriend from church. He quit cocaine cold turkey and changed his life. Today he's running a shelter for abused women and children involved in sex trafficking there. Univision picked up the story and interviewed Oscar, and they did some great journalism because they eventually discovered a lot of what he was saying wasn't lining up. And Oscar's defense was that if he used his real name, he would be putting people in danger and people would look for him. When we were down there he showed us these pictures that looked Photoshop'ed, and in that Univision report it turns out there was more than one fake photo. So I think I'm going to stick around to making documentaries and seeing what happens. For now, I'm begrudgingly working freelance projects shooting reality TV shows (which I loathe) and the like, and I hope to one day be able to travel the world, either shooting nature documentaries or exposing important stories in places that no one else will go.  

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Stay tuned to Mike's website, Mike the Eye, for more on his work and upcoming projects. An official selection at this year's Big Sky Film Fest, Dignity Harbor is sure to continue picking up steam as the year progresses. Visit the film's page on Tumblr for more on the film and related news.

My thanks again to Mike!

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