Homeless: the Soundtrack

Homeless: the Soundtrack                                                        

The Culture Dish with Masha Savitz

Homecoming: the Life

The Documentary short, called HOMELESS: THE SOUNDTRACK, featuring singer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist Jenni Alpert aka. Cami, and her biological father Don Longsdon, could alternatively be called, ‘Homecoming’, and perhaps on more challenging days, ‘Homeschool.’

Directed by Emmy®- and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, Irene Brodsky, and produced by Chockstone Pictures and Vermilion Films, the documentary which premiered at the Tribeca film festival, received a special jury and was awarded best short film, 2018nantucket film festival,

It is a story about adoption, homelessness, addiction, and mental wellness, and about compassion, family bonds, and living a creative life, very creatively. And music.

Alpert spent her early years in various foster homes, where singing and playing the piano was a source of comfort, and a tool for coping, amidst constant uprooting. 

When she was adopted out of the foster care system at the age of four, her adoptive family continued to support her musical aspirations, encouraging her to play the guitar, and later, to write and record songs as well. 

Recently, now an accomplished singer-songwriter, Alpert sought after her biological father, who she found, was homeless, addicted, and running from the law. Yet they share a profound bond, and he, as it turns out, is a musician just like her.

A film team made the short film, Homeless: the Soundtrack, documenting this unusual reunion and relationship.

With More than half a million homeless Americans this year, including veterans, woman and children, the homeless population has a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development has found that just under 553,000 people are homeless, with approximately 65% staying in sheltered accommodation. 

The causes of harmlessness in the US vary but mostly stem from lack of affordable housing, when compounded with divorce, lawful eviction, natural disasters, mental and physical disabilities, and domestic violence.

This film offers a very intimate and human look into what can otherwise become merely overwhelming, or misunderstood statistics.

I interviewed the vivacious Alpert in Santa Monica on a late summer afternoon, about her experience making the film and life with Don Longsdon.

How did the project come about?

Upon deciding to search for my birth father, to learn more about him and my biological bloodline, I hired a private investigator to help me. He confirmed, that he was in fact still living, though it was already clear to me that most of his life he had been in and out of prisons for petty crimes related to addiction, the PI also revealed his general whereabouts, that he was otherwise choosing homelessness for a sense of freedom. 

With this new information, I decided to stake out the area near where he lived, for a while before engaging to learn more. After a few months of reconnaissance and preparation, I went to area, or what I called “in the field”, with intention to locate, meet, and observe my birth father up close, to learn his lifestyle, cognitive behavior, learning capacity, and social skills- to simply get to know him once formally meeting him. 

During those profound three weeks “in the field” of sharing our selves and our lives with one another, playing music together, and exploring new adventures together, he revealed to me that he was, in fact, running from the law, as he regularly did due to failure to follow the regimented probation protocol presented to him upon each release. He was concerned for my safety during our time together, so his newly found plan was to turn himself in, serve the time owed and then continue to get to know me on safe terms.

While he was serving the 90 days he owed, fell for me over the [Jewish] High Holy Days. While I was at a Yom Kippur break the fast, I ran into a very interesting looking and slightly familiar seeming man who caught my attention.

In making small talk with him in an effort to place him, he joked that people usually either thought he was a Rabbi or homeless and that was why he may seem familiar. At that I replied with a laugh and said “how funny, I just recently reconnected with my birth father who is actually homeless and serving some remaining time in jail after choosing to turn himself upon our reunion” then flipped through photos of our adventures over the previous few weeks, “there’s a movie here……” he said, and then he and his wife preceded to produce the short doc. Homeless: the Soundtrack. 

What was your experience making it, and seeing yourself on film? How did this process affect Don and your relationship? 

Ironically, during our first three weeks together in the summer of 2016, while we were getting to know one another and as I introduced Don to a trillion and one new experiences he never even had opportunities in his life to explore, a young filmmaker spotted us eating our first Chinese food dinner together on the sidewalks of Long Beach. He approached us, curious about the dichotomy of difference between us that he intuitively picked up on.

After asking us some questions, he shared that he was a budding filmmaker at a local college and asked if we would be interested in doing a few informal camera interviews with him. This ultimately turned into the precursor to making the future documentary with a professional team. 

With this first experience under our belt, me observing Don and how he did with a filmmaker, and asking him his thoughts and feelings on the matter, it quickly became apparent that Don was even more comfortable in front of a camera than he was sometimes behind the scenes in real life. Additionally, we had such a blast of a time that when so many amazing new experiences began pouring in once the team for Homeless: the Soundtrack contacted us via meeting Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz that fateful break the fast, we were ready for the adventure. 

First we were introduced to Irene Taylor Brodsky, the selected director for the documentary in a brief phone conversation, which quickly turned into securing dates and times when she and her team could essentially follow us around doing our thing, shadowing our journey as it unfolded, while pausing for moments with us in the spotlight for interviews and audio inventory of backstory details. This went on for about two weeks as a labor of love on Irene’s part, sometimes she followed, not too far behind us, for over 10 hours sessions. 

When Don was released from his time served, I was there that October morning outside the jail at 6 am waiting to scoop him up, and from that day forth, we have been inseparable. Now its all about discovering new possibilities together and getting his life in order. We play music together, do fun activities together, meet appointment time requests for probation, secure GR, food stamps. We had to get him released from the prison system altogether, researching and exploring future options for Don, so he could have a different shot at life. 

She [the director] wanted to capture as much as she could. Needless to say, participating in the making of the documentary as subjects and having the ‘oh so many family fun field trip adventures’ and experiences, even now, all this time later, is more than profound, it is the most fulfilling life experience I personally have had yet. 

Our relationship started with a spark and has been electrically magnetized ever since. Having my adoptive mom be so wonderful and supportive has only added to the amazing unique experience that is our story because my family tree is ever-expanding and growing and that is the most incredible piece of it all.

It seems you have shifted your focus from singer-songwriter to championing causes you feel connected to, foster care, homelessness, and special needs, please explain this evolution. 

Actually, I have always volunteered with different demographics that I connected with. Starting in high school volunteering for meals on wheels with my mom, and carrying on throughout my college experience at UCLA where I volunteered for several organizations, transitioning foster youth towards successful emancipation.  I worked closely with Lois Lee at Children of the Night, guiding foster youth in how to write and record a song at Hillsides, working with women experiencing Homelessness at the Downtown Women’s Center, independently writing a rehabilitation program for the Los Angeles Men’s Correctional Facility, approved and implemented by the Los Angels Police Department, awarded an Arts Bridge Scholarship at UCLA to devise and teach a Jazz music program for inner-city elementary school children.

I was also awarded a Seder Arts Program grant to create Shabbat programs for Jewish foster youth, and obtaining shadowing experience as an independent spectrum tutor and shadow developing unique solution solving techniques. This all happened before finding, meeting, and learning the intricate details about my birth father and his dynamic and different life. One might say my whole life offered me tools, experiences, and preparation for our future life together now. 

Since being reconnected with my birth father, still these three years later, where he is no longer ‘using’, no longer choosing homeless and crime as a way of life, and no longer in the legal system, but rather sharing in a whole new life with me, performing music and speaking about our story and transformation together to both homeless demographics performing for and speaking to Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, and Recycled Resources for the Homeless and serving food at Hollywood Food Coalition, as well as those interested in changing the system, I would say that life has a funny way of preparing us for what is yet to come. 

How has the experience of finding your birth father and adopting him changed you?

Finding my birth father was like finding my inner calm. It was like all of a sudden I had guidance from a male figure I may have craved since the passing of my father to cancer almost twenty years ago and the best friend I always wanted.

And some might wonder what kind of guidance could a homeless previously addicted felon possibly give you, and I would answer quite a lot actually and even more, wisdom than you could ever know.

My life was always full of people, music, audiences, adventures, love, support and life experience, but now my life is full of something additional, something so profound and beyond simple words to express it in total, for the short of it I can simply say it’s fuller, the fullest it’s ever been. I am happier now and more fulfilled.

And I am forever grateful for the added love I have in my life now because each and every day I can feel myself evolving into more of the woman I hope to continue to become simply because he has come into my life as a staple guide. Between my mom and my birth father at both my sides, I now feel I have the wings to fly. 

How is your story impacting others? | What do you hope people can learn from your experience? 

The things I really hope people take away from our story are that of unique living, creative approaches, patience in partnership, intelligent preparation for the plethora of possibility, and realistic expectations – if having any at all. That we are not all one and the same, that we are not all exposed the same opportunities or possibilities, that transition is not something that can be forced or imagined upon someone, but that transformation is completely possible if we let it unfold just as the delicate wings of a butterfly from its original cocoon come to recognize the path that best suits their way. As an octagon that fits in no boundary box, rather than sees pastures of parameters, I hope our biological reunion and transformation story offers hope to the different and strength to the seasoned, for one thing, is true in this world, we are all in it together.

The two perform and share their biological reunion story together alongside supporting the film as a duo under the name Cami and Don.