A 1984 documentary shining a light on the lives of homeless youth in Seattle is experiencing a rebirth.
“Streetwise,” an Academy Award-nominated film, painted an in-depth picture of the unforgiving life on the streets.
The documentary tackles prostitution, panhandling, and drug dealing. The project began with the late documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark. In 1983 she was in Seattle on assignment for Life magazine because the city had just been voted America’s most livable city. Mark collaborated with filmmaker Martin Bell to create a window into the struggles of youth from broken homes. Thirteen-year-old Erin “Tiny” Blackwell emerged as the leading character in the film.
“It’s a challenging film because it forces us to look at our failings as a community,” Catherine Hinrichsen said. “It’s beautifully made with compelling portraits of young people who we can’t forget.”
Hinrichsen is the project director of Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness. She’s arranged for Erin’s third child, Keanna Pickett, and Seattle University Assistant Prof. Claire Garoutte, to speak after the Oct. 7 screening of “Streetwise” at SU to help the audience gain a deeper understanding of the film.
“We believe in the power of storytelling to impel the community to act and to create empathy. A story like Erin’s is just so powerful we can’t look away,” Hinrichsen said. “The film can be a catalyst if there’s an opportunity to talk about it. I don’t think watching this all by itself is going to make that happen. We need to understand what we’re seeing, and we need to understand how we can change what we’re seeing.”
Seattle Public Library is screening “Streetwise” and the newly released “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” this month. The library also has an accompanying photography exhibit of Blackwell’s life over the past 30 years. Davida Ingram, public engagement programs manager at the library, said making both films available to the public is part of a larger mission to educate the community about family homelessness.
“I would like very much that we frame the issue as the problem but never people as the problem. A person who’s experiencing homelessness is never the problem. The conditions that create homelessness is always the problem,” Ingram said. “Those are really important distinctions to make.”
Following the Oct. 14 screening of the updated film, director Martin Bell and Blackwell will take part in a Q&A with the audience. In the trailer the audience sees Blackwell talking about her life, which did not have a fairy tale ending. Today she’s the mother of nine children, and it appears her relationship is strained with one of her daughters.
“In it we see how Erin has persevered. Her challenging life as a young person and instilled in her children her strong resilience,” Hinrichsen said. “But at the same time it highlights systemic issues that still need to be dealt with.”
Ingram has gotten to know Blackwell, and she’s become more than just a documentary subject.
“I see her as a person and she’s someone I wanted to be able to look in her eye and acknowledge the struggle she’s been through,” Ingram said. “But then also to see all the things that make her a really incredible person because I think those are really important when you do advocacy for anyone left out of the social contract.”
When: Friday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Seattle University, Campion Ballroom, 914 E Jefferson Street
What: “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” film screening
When: Friday, Oct. 14 7 p.m.
Where: Central Library, Level 1 - Microsoft Auditorium, 1000 4th Ave
Click here for a list of events for Streetwise Revisted at Seattle Public Library.