Susan Sarandon on social justice

Through homeless eyes at the San Diego Film Festival

Susan Sarandon
  • Susan Sarandon

As much as I would have loved to spend our limited time together talking about Joe, Atlantic City, Light Sleeper, The Last Robin Hood, and many other Susan Sarandon performances I’m ga-ga over, the timing wasn’t right. The call was to help promote screenings of two powerful documentaries she executive-produced and which will play as part of this week’s San Diego Film Festival’s Social Justice Initiative — a series she had a hand in forming.

Storied Streets

Her son Jack Henry Robbins’s Storied Streets explores the issue of homelessness from the eyes of those who live it. Catch it Saturday, Oct. 3, at 1:30 p.m. at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15. Hillevi Loven’s Deep Run eavesdrops on the life a young transgender man from rural North Carolina who very much wants to belong to the Catholic Church. It screens Friday, Oct. 2, at 5 p.m. at the Gaslamp.

A scheduling conflict prohibited Sarandon from making a personal appearance, but you can meet Jack at the screening or at Friday afternoon’s Social Justice Panel. (We haven’t heard the last of Sarandon. She consented to a follow-up discussion down the road focusing on her work in front of the camera.)

The San Diego Film Festival runs September 30–October 4. For more information visit sdfilmfest.com.

Scott Marks: Before we talk go into the films, talk to me about the San Diego Film Festival’s new Social Justice initiative that you helped create.

Susan Sarandon: I am very fortunate to have had access to a lot of documentaries all through the years. I’ve learned so much from them and find them an accepted way now for people to get information. There are so many exciting documentaries being done that I think people are more eager to see them now than ever. To be able to bring about change — a change you can touch — by bringing people’s attention to issues, or a person, or any kind of information they’re not otherwise getting, is very exciting.

These days, film festivals in particular are making it possible for documentaries and small films to find an audience, where the studios are not necessarily doing their jobs. Festivals can incite interest when the audience stands up and cheers at the end, and a studio can decide whether or not to invest their money and time in the film. When my partner Thomas Morgan was able to broker this kind of idea by starting [the Social Justice Initiative], it made us so excited. It’s another way for people to find these very special films, and hopefully be moved to do anything, from righting a wrong, or giving information, or asking more questions, or starting dialogues about something...that’s how change starts, with information.

SM: You began your career in movies in 1970. Prior to 2013 you had produced three films, all narrative features. In the past three years, you have produced six films: five documentaries and one feature. Why the sudden acceleration behind the camera?

SS: Part of it is I have more time because my kids are no longer home at lunchtime and dinner. Part of it is I found the right people to partner with. That had a lot to do with it. And there’s just not as many major parts out there for me or people my age. I’m working constantly but having less responsibility. I can go into a job for three weeks instead of three months, so I have a little bit more time.

SM: How did you come onboard as executive producer on Deep Run?

SS: [Producer] Chris Talbott is an old friend. I’ve known him for years in other capacities. I’m interested in the subject and was pulled into the loop by him and wanted to do everything I could. Everybody knows about Caitlyn Jenner. As wonderful a job as she did to start a worldwide conversation, everybody doesn’t have the means to transition the way Caitlyn Jenner has. I thought this was a wonderful way to tell that story.

SM: It’s amazing what some people will reveal when the cameras are rolling. More monstrous than anything I’ve seen in a horror film is this Pastor Bradley who admits to participating in the ritualistic beating of gays while in the Marine Corps.

SS: So much happened in the last few years to throw off the obsessive scheme of how these people think the world works. There’s a black president, and gay marriage, and now issues of transgender...they’re holding on for dear life to a structure that they think works for them. When you talk about real people, it changes things.

SM: Storied Streets is the directorial debut of your son, Jack Henry Robbins. Congratulations! It’s one of the few documentaries I’ve seen that succeeds at, for lack of a better term, giving homelessness a face.

SS: He did it right after graduation. He and his companions traveled across the United States, and I think it was an eye-opener for them. He gained people’s trust by spending nights on the streets with these guys, and I think that made a huge difference. I’m very proud of him. He and a graduate student architect friend dedicated a year to figure out how to build better shelters. They said that was such a beautiful way to start the whole thing, because it helped them to understand so much they hadn’t before.

SM: The film raises a lot of issues that many people might not be aware of. It never dawned on me that without an address, no one is going to give you a job.

SS: The purpose of the film — and I think it did its job — was to debunk a lot of the myths about the homeless. How do you get there? How difficult is it to get out? How difficult is it to survive when you don’t have an address? We have so many misconceptions about the homeless. They talk about this thing called compassion fatigue. We’ve gotten to that point and it seems to be getting worse and worse. People just can’t bear to see it anymore.

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