New Orleans Film Festival: Elegance Bratton Directs 'Pier Kids,' on New York's Homeless LGBTQ Youth of Color
New Jersey native was a homeless pier kid himself: 'When I was 16 my mother kicked me out for being gay'
When director Elegance Bratton appeared at the New Orleans Film Festival for a Q&A after a screening of his documentary Pier Kids, he was holding a beverage in his hand.
"Fair warning, there's liquor in this cup," he told the audience at the Tubi Theater. "It could go left at any moment."
The conversation didn't go left, at least in my opinion. In fact, it went straight to some truth about a group of people marginalized in society and even within the LGBTQ community -- homeless gay and trans youth of color. Pier Kids centers on a number of these young people who cling together in lower Manhattan, living on the streets near the Chelsea Pier. While gay men and women, especially those of a comfortable socio-economic status, have it much better in this country than they did decades ago, the kind of young, homeless kids in Bratton's documentary face daily challenges to survive.
Home is where we are most deeply understood.
In some respects Pier Kids can be compared to Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary by Jennie Livingston that focused on LGBT youth of color active in New York's ballroom scene. But there's a significant difference between the two films -- Livingston approached her subject as an outsider, a cis white woman. Bratton has lived the life of a pier kid.
"When I was 16 my mother kicked me out for being gay," he said. "I spent 10 years of my life without any home to speak of and any real connection to my family." Later he joined the Marines, and after leaving the service he entered Columbia University in New York. Bratton explained it was there that the idea for his documentary came to him.
"I started making this film as an undergraduate at Columbia University at the end of my first semester," Bratton commented. "At the end of the semester all these young people that I was in classes with, they were all going home and [going] home is a big deal at Columbia, so you see like pets and brothers and sisters and dads and grandparents and banners [show up]. People have places to go to and people who are excited to see them and I didn't have that... It made me think deeply about where my home was... In that moment I realized that home is where we are most deeply understood and the pier was home for me. So that is the genesis of the project."
Among the main characters in Pier Kids are Krystal Dixon, a trans African-American young woman whose mother insists she dress as male while under her roof. Casper, an avid skateboarder, is bisexual and dates a trans woman.
The film reveals the regular harassment from police faced by pier kids and the difficulty of making ends meet. What home they can make for themselves around the pier has been steadily disappearing.
"The pier has been changing since I was 16, and between the time I was 16 and making this film that is a political process called gentrification, which in laymen terms means ethnic cleansing," Bratton stated. "It means eliminating spaces both public and private for those who are deemed as being unfit to be there."
He cited the example of a local pizza restaurant patronized by homeless LGBTQ youth that he said typifies "what I will call temporal segregation -- segregation that takes place at a certain hour of the day you're not supposed to be here... For about $10 to $12 you could buy a slice [of pizza] and a drink, take a seat and, as you can imagine, for pier kids this is a really essential location. Over the course of making this film they started putting barricades... around the tables after 8 o'clock at night. As soon as the sun went down, those went up around the tables. And they also put them up in the entrance to the place as well so that the only thing you really can do is buy your slice of pizza and continue out the door. That's, to me, an example of temporal segregation."
There are other ordinances that negatively impact pier kids, Bratton noted.
"There's these curfews. What you see is the pier closing up," he said. "In '96 I was there when the pier first had a curfew. If you watch a movie like Paris Is Burning you could stay at the pier all night long. By 1996 you can't stay out all night long. It's a 12 midnight curfew. And you can't sit on the corner and you can't sit on someone's steps, so that people have to exist in constant motion. In these ways the pier has changed, gentrified, not only public space and private space but also kind of the necessary space of coming of age, of youth, or being able to hang out with people your own age and discover life with them. The very act of it is treated as a nuisance."
During the Q&A, Bratton was asked about any footage he left out of the final cut of the film. He cited a TV news report about the death of one of his characters, saying to put that in would have changed the point of view of the film -- the actual lived experience of the characters.
"I chose not to [include that news footage] because the pier kids hear about his death the way that you [viewers] hear about his death. He's here one minute, he's gone the next," the director explained. "For me the goal of this film is to make the audience into a pier kid, is to inflict, implicate, engage everybody who sees this film in the skin of what it is to be homeless, black and queer. So to do that I had to make some hard choices and that was a really hard choice. Because I thought it was meaningful that his story ended up on the evening news but ultimately it was dishonest to what the intention of my film is to include it in it."
Bratton's film won Honorable Mention from the documentary jury at the New Orleans Film Festival. At Outfest in Los Angeles he won the Emerging Filmmaker Award.
We spoke with Bratton at Outfest, where Pier Kids screened in July. Watch the video here:
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.