A man walks along the side of the road with a cardboard sign asking for help from the cars rushing by. Most of the time, no one pays him any attention and if they do, they turn their heads away. This man is one of the estimated 100 million homeless people in the world. He’s one of the 1.6 to 3.5. million homeless in the United States on any given day. However, artist Trent Dion Soto is bringing a new voice to people like that man on the street with his new short documentary “Among the Discarded.”
For his 44th birthday, the Louisiana native hit the streets of California’s Skid Row, a 0.4 square mile area in Los Angeles County where about 83,347 people work tirelessly to survive every day. With only a toothbrush, a Go Pro and the clothes on his back, Soto immersed himself in the culture of the streets and interviewed various people that had been living on the streets for decades.
Soto explained he wanted to focus on the issue of homelessness in modern America because of its prevalence in the media. “For me, as an artist that also works in the film industry…I wanted to produce a film documentary that had meaning and 2 years ago I continuously saw the homeless situation in all of the headlines,” he said in his southern drawl. “So, the topic of homelessness was just speaking to me. I want to do something to continue to generate awareness.”
Soto worked to keep the film low budget while also making sure the quality of the footage remained high. “I am a poor artist. I don’t have thousands of dollars or backers or anything like that. I had to choose the most economical route viable and what was going to get the job done,” he stated.
The solution ended up being as simple as a Go Pro camera that he used to conduct interviews and record his everyday life on the streets. He recorded everything from receiving food from volunteers to seeking safe shelter for the night. Soto not only appreciated the camera for its light weight and cheap price tag, but he also hoped it would give other aspiring filmmakers inspiration to make their own projects. “I also wanted to inspire young filmmakers. I go to film festivals and speak with filmmakers and tell them it doesn’t cost $5 million dollars to make a film, much less a documentary.”
Some might question why Soto would go to such lengths for his art and put himself onto the filthy streets of Los Angeles, but the result is a gritty, down-to-earth look at what it means to struggle in squalor. The film offers a glimpse into the sheer strength of the human spirit possessed in many of Skid Row’s residences.
The project became excruciatingly personal for Soto, who befriended many of the people on the streets of Skid Row. He continues to go back even now that the film is complete. One of his closest relationships was with a woman named Sandy who Soto eventually taught how to paint. She is now selling her work to help her off the streets. “The greatest thing she said to me before I left was ‘Trent, I don’t have to dig through trash again, I’ll just paint.’She had to dig through trash to supplement her income,” he recalled. “How sad is that?”
Not all of his friends from Skid Row were as fortunate as Sandy. He watched some of his friends die on those streets. “Watching so many of my friends–about 3 or 4–just dying like fish on a dock, flopping and gasping for his last breath, dying in front of me, laying on the sidewalk,” he said. “I can’t even think about it.”
Despite their hardships, Soto admired the strength that the homeless displayed everyday even for something as simple as saying good morning. “I’m walking through a human wasteland, a place that should not exist in America, and the smell of death and urine and pee is constant. It’s horrible.” Soto explained that despite the filth of the streets, the people of Skid Row always say, “Good morning” as he walks by.
The film has shown at 15 festivals around the world including the 2015 CineRockom International Film Festival, where it received a Silver Award. The response, according to Soto, has been positive. “The most common thing people say is ‘You make me think’ when they see it, and I’m very grateful for that because it’s a process, the beginning of a process,” he explained. “And then a lot say, ‘Yes, all I’ve got to do is a little. I can do a little.” His film has shown audiences that a small gesture can make a world of difference.
Soto hopes that his film will be one of his little things to make the world a better place, to inspire more compassion and help ease the suffering of those left to fend for themselves on the streets. His next documentary will continue the narrative of “Among the Discarded,” focusing on homeless veterans in the US.