Hope city

Under the Bridge
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 21, 2009

Trailer of Under the Bridge

There is, perhaps, no more potent symbol of economic distress than a shantytown. It is the domestic exposed. It is life in the cold.

So the tent city that sprouted under the Crawford Street Bridge in Providence four months back has attracted its share of media attention.

But a new 10-minute documentary, Under the Bridge, provides perhaps the most intimate look at the homeless encampment yet.

Shot and produced by Courtney Sell, 24, the lo-fi film alternates between images of the settlement and interviews with the two homeless men, John Joyce and Roland Colpitts, who founded what they call Hope City.

"This ain't the solution, believe me," says Joyce, at the start of the documentary. "This is just a band-aid on a cut that's real big."

Joyce and Colpitts, unofficial homeless outreach workers, built Hope City after a construction worker found a homeless man, Paul Langlois, dead under the bridge in early January.

The men, who made a cross of stones on the site of Langlois's death, say the encampment is a refuge for the hardest to reach — a community for the isolated. "Since we've been here," Colpitts says in the film, "no one else has died."

Hope City has been a mild irritant for non-profit groups worried that the high-profile project, which has attracted donations of food, water, and medical supplies, is diverting scarce resources from established programs.

But the denizens of Hope City, an anti-authoritarian bunch, say the project is an alternative to strict, dirty, or poorly-run shelters. And it is easy to see how Sell, a native of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, was drawn to the organizers.

After high school, Sell spent a semester at the Pratt Institute, a prestigious art school in Brooklyn, before dropping out. "I didn't want to go home," he said. "I was stubborn and naïve."

Sell lived in Washington Square Park in Manhattan for a few days, watching protests connected to the Republican National Convention and worrying, by night, about his safety.

"It was a lonely feeling," he said.

Sell would have other brushes with homelessness — he lived in a cemetery in Arcata, California, for a time. But he also managed to shoot documentaries with his hand-held Hi8 video camera.

No Place Like Home follows a friend, Jac Curr, who lost his family home in Hurricane Katrina and began raising money for rebuilding efforts through the sale of "Defend New Orleans" T-shirts.

And in My Dying Day, Sell documents the final months of his father's battle with prostate cancer.

Bleak topics all, and Sell, who lives in Providence these days, expected Under the Bridge to be a dark portrait. But instead, he found a community proud of its self-reliance.

"It was much more positive than I expected," he said.

Sell says Under the Bridge is the start of a larger project. He plans to shoot footage at two more Rhode Island tent cities and stitch together a feature-length documentary — of cold and privation and hope.

Related: How Rhode Island can eliminate homelessness, Human-rights campaigner to tour Maine, Down and out at Thanksgiving, More more >
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