A film screening brings normality to Auckland's homeless community

by Frances Walsh / 06 April, 2017
Photography by Adrian Malloch

Every Monday morning, Auckland’s central city library holds a film screening for the homeless. “It’s like being in the real world,” says Reg, one of the regular viewers.

There is a lot going on with the carpet in the Whare Wānanga on the second floor of Auckland’s central city library. The design of brown lines and red dots is based on the stick charts once made and used by mariners of the Marshall Islands to navigate their territory’s 1,156 islands and 29 atolls. The charts were less a literal representation, more an abstract illustration of the way the sea interacted with the land: curved sticks represented swells; straight sticks, currents; small shells, islands. A stick chart was a tool for survival. It could deliver a soul home.

On Monday mornings at 10.30am the library screens a movie for the homeless in the carpeted whare. Admission is free, and preceded by morning tea trolleyed in by volunteers. The movie is drawn from the library’s collection of 16,000 DVDs, and selected democratically by the mostly male crowd of around 20. “The library doesn’t force things on people,” says librarian Hamish Noonan. “We don’t make people watch a six-hour Russian film.” Wise, according to Rangi Carroll, who was integral in setting up Monday’s fixture two years ago. By then Carroll had lived on the streets for a number of years, having previously written the published novel Hina: portrait of a Māori heart, and been awarded a prize while studying for a Bachelor of Media Arts at the Waikato Institute of Technology. “You won’t get people asking for deep European content,” he observes.

For Reg, movie morning is “like being in the real world”.

As preferable as it is to tyranny, governance by the will of the majority can however disappoint, as indicated by some eye-rolling at the tea trolley in early March when Star Trek: The Early Years (2009) is chosen. And as indicated by Tili, one of the filmgoers: when the lights go down in the whare and coats, shoes, socks, plastic shopping bags, packs, pillows and umbrellas are shed, he remains seated outside, reading up on the American Civil War. His cinematic preoccupations include British BBC sitcoms of the 1960s–1980s (Blackadder, and Steptoe and Son) and satirical Westerns (Blazing Saddles, 1974), but he prefers his space travel to take place in another franchise. He has all the Star Wars incarnations in storage in Penrose, but can’t access them, his bike having been stolen from outside the library. Tili would like to watch a movie on the American Civil War, “but the others won’t watch it”.

He may be wrong there. Tastes – at least in the month before autumn takes hold – lean to blokey action but accommodate a maverick; the stirrings of the Kirk/Spock bromance is followed in the succeeding weeks by the pacy thriller Jason Bourne (2016), the swords and sandals remake Ben-Hur (2016), and the allegorical survival drama Life of Pi (2012) (a film that, one woman notes during the screening, might be best appreciated with a spliff). Jack, who sleeps in Aotea Square with his girlfriend Happy after being evicted from Housing New Zealand accommodation last May, offers a rationale behind the line-up: “All the rough and tumble reminds us of being on the street”.

Jack, whose home is currently Aotea Square.

Jack has been in the army, and in jail for assault. He also used to harvest oysters up north before severely injuring his right arm. Before winter he and Happy will move to Mount Roskill, to Happy’s house which she rented out over the summer. Once there, Jack aims to grow silverbeet and pumpkins. Happy might make Japanese food; while waiting for Jason Bourne to begin she annotates Sushi Secrets by Marisa Baggett.

Recurrent themes aside, everyone’s a critic. Life of Pi, based on a best-selling book, is about a boy whose personal belief system is a mashup of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. “The movie doesn’t have enough balls,” says David, a sometime extra on Shortland Street who, until recently, lived on the street after moving to Auckland from Taihape in search of work. His stepfather belonged to the Assembly of God, a church which enthusiastically embraces the Bible.

David moved to Auckland from Taihape in search of work and lived on the streets until recently.

Books don’t always convert well to the screen, notes Timoti. Take Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit directed by Peter Jackson. The local filmmaker “has a tendency to fuck things up” due to “a problem with authenticity”, Timoti says. Conversely, director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi adaptation is a knockout: “Screen-writing superb, musical score superb, cinematography superb”, he assesses. Which doesn’t mean the movie is unproblematic: “I still don’t know what it’s about,” comments one audience member leaving the whare after 127 minutes of Pi.

Just what screens on Mondays, though, may be beside the point. For Reg, who is “in between places”, the tea trolley and the movies share equal billing. Monday is five days after benefit day. The money may be gone, he says, spent on booze and crack. “The guys are feeling sorry for themselves. A cup of tea and a biscuit is uplifting. Do you know how much a cup of tea is in a cafe?” Movie morning at the library, Reg adds, is “like being in the real world”.

Reg and Timoti at the library for one of the regular film screenings.

Timoti grabs a quick Milo from the trolley. He’s going to court today to deal with a charge of threatening behaviour. He characterises the whare on Monday mornings as “the place where the brothers sleep”. Renee, a fan of chick flicks, just wants “to come off the streets and be safe”. Nevertheless, he enters into the spirit of things. When Spock’s mother falls into a fiery abyss, he laughs, claps and says, “Sayonara”. Someone nearby joins in, “Bye Mum”. Meanwhile, various people lie on the carpet, rub their feet, and recharge cell phones. The crowd is companionable and quiet, but for metronomic snoring and Renee’s intermittent giggling.

Waihaki and some of his possessions.

Tolerance may be observed, but it can be stretched. Waihaki and Dallas usually sit well to the rear of the whare. “The only thing is, you’ve got to put up with the smell.” They sleep on a mattress among the agapanthus at the rear of the library. A neighbour lets Dallas shower in her apartment; Waihaki showers at a friend’s – other moviegoers are not so connected, or fastidious. Waihaki looks forward to Mondays because he doesn’t own a big screen. After the movies he and Dallas return the furniture in the whare to its original configuration. “The library looks after us. We should look after them. If it wasn’t for the library, people would be getting into trouble.”

Timoti characterises the whare as “the place where the brothers sleep”.

When Life of Pi starts, Raymond leaves the library. He’s seen it before. One movie he wouldn’t mind rewatching is Into the Wild (2007), the story of a man who rejects conformity and materialism for a life in the Alaskan wilderness, where he butchers moose et cetera, and perishes after eating the poisonous seeds of a wild potato plant. For the past eight months Raymond has lived indoors but before that, he slept rough – in Auckland, the South Island and Australia. He has, he says, forgotten what most of his biological family look like. “The homeless are my family.” In 2014 he got a library card – “the best birthday present I ever got”. He would like to visit Auckland’s 55 libraries on a bike. He mostly reads about flora and fauna, and is particularly interested in edible plants. Sometimes he is questioned in libraries by security guards, or police. “They cut into my SSR [Sustained Silent Reading] time,” he says. If Raymond is not reading, he walks around the city. This morning he’s off to find a cigarette lighter. WiFi phone boxes can be good hunting grounds for essentials. Once he found an Egg McMuffin.

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