Janet Photo by: Matthew Hill (c)2012 Jazz singer Toni Jannotta in the editing room at CAPS TV where she has spent the past few months working on her film Voices of the Homeless. “Caps is Ventura’s best kept secret,” she says.

Outside voices

Documentary film pairs homeless storytellers with jazz musicians

By Michel Miller 08/23/2012

The connection between jazz music and homelessness may not be an obvious one, but that didn’t stop Toni Jannotta from basing a performance project on it. Two years ago, the jazz vocalist invited a handful of people who have experienced life without the benefit of housing to tell their stories in verse to a live audience at the WAV in Ventura. She also asked a few of her musician friends to provide improvised music as both interpretation and accompaniment. The event was filmed, resulting in the recently completed documentary Voices of the Homeless. Funded through a Ventura County Arts Council community partnership grant, the film will be screened on Sunday, Aug. 26, at E.P. Foster Library’s Topping Room.

Prior to receiving the grant, Jannotta was looking for something to occupy her restless creative spirit, but felt uninspired . . . until she encountered “homeless angel Bob.”

“He used to scare the hell out of me — big, tall guy, no teeth, striking helter-skelter eyes with a guitar on his back,” she said.It occurred to Jannotta that perhaps his presence was providing a clue, a path to a new pursuit. She began pondering the human voice and realized Bob’s was a song she could not sing.

Their conversations led her to Project Understanding and Turning Point Foundation, which in turn led her to the River Haven project and Shore, all programs that aid homeless individuals in various ways.  Through them she came into contact with a handful of people living with little means. One of them was a man who goes by the name Three Dog, who is featured in the film. Three Dog was later attacked by a group of youths who stabbed him and beat him with a baseball bat. “It’s really scary out there,” says Jannotta.

Each person Jannotta asked to be part of the project had a message to relay. Living on the streets takes a heavy toll but it also imparts a certain wisdom and a surprising measure of gratitude. In the film, we see Three Dog fishing at the pier, eager to tell people to value everything they have because it can be gone in a heartbeat, and not to sit around, because nobody is worthless.

So where does the jazz fit in?

 “The purpose of the documentary is listening, that we all learn to listen,” Jannotta explained. “What better two groups but the jazzers who improvise out of a listening experience — the emotional impact they felt from the story; the person, their energy, their vibe — and the homeless who need to be listened to? I want to tell the world what we did to honor the homeless and the musicians, and hope other communities would consider doing this because perhaps it could help both of these disenfranchised groups.”

As is often the case with charitable acts (and also speaks to the genius of artist-in-the community type grants), the artist or “giver” is forever changed by the experience.  “As a musician, I always knew the depth and soul of jazz; that’s what I wanted to show the audience. But I walked away with a deeper understanding of people who have it worse than any of us, and because of that I found a deeper connection with myself and I’m a deeper person than I was two years ago.”

Because it uses artistic expression as a means to understanding, Voices of the Homeless not only gives the viewer a different perspective of the people we label “homeless,”  but also offers an opportunity to examine our own tendencies toward stereotyping.

Interviews with people from the audience, the musicians and members of the community, reveal a shift in consciousness that takes place when we allow humanity to supersede societal norms and expectations. It’s easy to form an opinion about the grinning man panhandling in front of Vons, or the woman who makes her children stand with her while she begs in front of the mall, but when we allow people the space to tell their stories we inevitably find points of commonality that shrink the gap between us.

“Today I see the purpose of connection more than I ever did before,” says Jannotta. “I see the need for acceptance and listening to each other more than I ever have before, and not taking things at face value, which is easy to do.”

A free public screening of Voices of the Homeless and panel discussion will be held on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2 p.m. at E.P. Foster Library’s Topping Room, 651 E. Main St., Ventura. Read about Toni Jannotta’s journey in filmmaking by visiting www.voices-of-the-homeless.blogspot.com.

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