The way they tell it, they figured they'd just spend a few nights in the homeless camp, interview some residents, try to challenge some stereotypes. The kind of thing you'd expect from a compassionate but admittedly ignorant high schooler and his friend-of-a-friend college student with some camera equipment. They were even close to scrapping the project when Adam Oppenheim, the high schooler, thought he had to take classes over the summer.
But then someone urged the IUPUI student, Sam Mirpoorian, who had been working on music videos and other small projects, to "do something that has meaning to it, that can make an impact." And Oppenheim decided to skip summer school (and the last semester of his senior year, but we're jumping ahead). So they cleared their summer, raising $495 to buy a sound recorder, making a teaser in April 2013. And they started filming in earnest in June of that year, heading to the homeless camp on Davidson Street where they met the soft-spoken, wise Maurice, a sort of camp counselor who opened their eyes to just how complicated it can be to live on the streets.
And it's there that they met Don Sawyer, a friend of Maurice and volunteer at the camp who soon joined the filmmaking team. And they started talking not only to homeless people but to representatives of Wheeler Mission Ministries, the IMPD, the Mayor's Office, the Coalition for Homelessness Prevention (CHIP). And the film evolved. "Nothing was planned," says Mirpoorian. "Everything just unfolded. It was almost like the movie was given to us." Sawyer took on the role of amateur investigative reporter, trying to account for federal and city spending on homelessness, figuring out just what CHIP does.
The end result, Uncharted: The Truth Behind Homelessness, is above all a political documentary. Mirpoorian says Michael Moore and Gasland's Josh Fox were touchstones for their style, though Sawyer says he was reluctant to take such a critical approach: "I'm from Indiana — I've lived in L.A., but I'm from here. And the one thing I've kept a connection to was the Pacers. So I didn't come here to mess with Indianapolis." But Sawyer says the rest of the filmmaking team urged him "to say it the way it is."
While Sawyer says he doesn't think of the movie as a "hit job" because he chose not to include what subjects said when they thought the cameras are off, he does catch those positions of power in moments at unguarded moments. Steve Kerr, Wheeler Mission Ministries' Chief Development Officer, tells Sawyer that because he's an administrator and not a "shelter worker," he's unaware of all the details of Wheeler's admission process, admitting that "I probably should know these things" with a laugh. Sgt. Robert Hipple, the director of IMPD's Crisis Intervention Team, is candid in the film about the city's shortcomings: "We are sorely lacking ... an emergency shelter that will handle couples, someone with a pet, someone that's gay, someone who has mental health issues and someone that has substance abuse [issues]. I don't have anywhere to put them."
The film is particularly critical of the Mayor's Office, contradicting budget figures offered by Front Porch Alliance Director Douglas Hairston during two interviews with the filmmakers. Uncharted includes an email from the Mayor's Communication Director Marc Lotter, who, after the filmmakers interviewed Hairston, declined to make Mayor Ballard or other members of the Mayor's Cabinet available for interview, telling the team, "I do not believe any further interviews would change your portrayal of this issue in Indianapolis." And the film makes light of that situation, propping up a cardboard cutout of Ballard in an auditorium, and addressing him from the stage: "Mr. Mayor, we have to talk to you this way because you refuse to talk to us at all."
The Mayor's Office isn't amused. "This filmmaker approached his project to promote a specific agenda, without the objective lens of journalism," Lotter told NUVO Tuesday. "The film intentionally misreports and distorts information to support the filmmakers' conclusion. It should be viewed in that light."
Mirpoorian says the first cut of Uncharted ran four hours and 45 minutes. He regrets what hit the floor as they cut it down to its current length of 94 minutes, including profiles of those helping the homeless who were recently themselves homeless. And if Sawyer, Oppenheim and Mirpoorian all say editing was a struggle, Sawyer says that, in general, the hardest part about making the film "was never having done it before. Working with people who are just as anally detailed as you are was the hardest part. You know what you want to see but you don't know how to get there. People almost lost their lives a few times." Oppenheim recalls a brush with death when he found himself doing the splits between a moving car and the sidewalk while holding a camera.
For Oppenheim, the film was, above all, an eye-opener: "The hardest part emotionally in making the film was watching them tear up the camp," he says, referring to the Davidson Street homeless camp, which was shut down by the city in August 2013 before the team's cameras. "It was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life."
Sawyer reports that the world premiere of Uncharted at IUPUI in May drew 450 attendees. The team has submitted the film to 16 film fests and say they have contacts in place that might help them get the film distributed. Others have helped along the way, including a law firm that saw them through a potential copyright infringement lawsuit (they joke that they've become experts on fair use law). If Uncharted proves successful, they hope to make a fictional feature film — and Uncharted II, which would look beyond Indianapolis and possibly include interviews with celebrities who have been homeless.