'Everyone's only one mistake away from being where I am' - "Sleeping Rough" review

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This gritty, honest and humanising portrayal of street homelessness promises to create a stir amongst the local community. University of Bristol third year student Owain Astles screens his feature film Sleeping Rough at the Winston Theatre for its Bristol premier

Sleeping Rough was born after director and producer Owain Astles went out on the streets of Bristol and interviewed the homeless. He made a short documentary, and inspired by its reception and feedback, decided to work on the docudrama. After two years in the making, Sleeping Rough had its Bristol premier at the Student Union’s Winston theatre, and will show at Watershed on 27th February as part of Homelessness Awareness week.

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The film follows three characters on their journey to homelessness, and dramatizes information collated from Astles’ interviews. Sleeping Rough overlays its beautiful shots with interview soundbites, constantly reminding the audience that, despite the film’s polished feel, all events are based on truths. All dialogue is ad-lib and inspired by acting workshops featuring both the cast and rough sleepers. The mixture of drama and documentary combines to create an honest and touching film, unafraid to tackle difficult subject matter in a humane way.

Luisa Torre’s portrayal of Eva is particularly touching and believable. An immigrant, Eva is forced into gruelling, underpaid work in order to escape deportation. Unable to continue working under such circumstances, she is forced onto the street, and is uncomplainingly stoic in the face of adversity. Nolan Willis as Jack is also remarkable. In a poignant scene he calls his mother from a pay phone, and says nothing about his homelessness to protect her from the truth. The scene is heart-wrenchingly sad, and Willis’ commitment to a genuine portrayal of guilt, obligation and raw sadness is impressive.

Despite the film’s veracity, its focus on humanising and normalising rough sleepers seems to draw away from other issues surrounding homelessness. For example, the film negates to mention any problems of drug addiction on the streets. Perhaps in its attempt to dissolve the stereotypical association between homelessness and drug abuse, the film counterintuitively stigmatises and isolates users more.

Yet Sleeping Rough stresses the help and support available to the homeless, shot on location in various homeless shelters and soup kitchens. It has a bitter-sweet note, highlighting the kindness and dedication of charity workers and institutions, and a sense of comradery and solidarity amongst the homeless community. As well as a film designed to raise awareness of the problems of homelessness in the UK, Sleeping Rough encourages community engagement and support of these charities.

Most people have heard the troubling statistic that Bristol has the highest number of rough sleepers outside of London. The impact of this gritty film is strengthened by the audience’s awareness and personal responses and experiences with homelessness. Astles brings this to life by shooting in iconic Bristol locations, and student hot spots, like Stokes Croft and Whiteladies Road.

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Sleeping Rough opens with a beautiful, sensitive scene, immediately crushed by the reality of life. A couple gaze at each other under the sheets before the shot changes and we realise the man, Jack, is lying on the hard, damp floor of the street. The film closes with the same shot of Jack on the ground. Despite the tones of optimism, and occasional comedy, these paired scenes embody what Sleeping Rough is about – a fall from grace.

The film lies at the stable intersection of professional, artistic and political cinema, projecting the voices of those who are ignored and marginalised by society, despite often being blameless. The film is admirable for its subject matter, and deserves praise for the crisp, high standard and production quality on such a small budget. Sleeping Rough is powerful, moving and truthful, and promises to make an impact in Bristol and beyond.

Sleeping Rough screens publicly in Bristol for the first time at Watershed on 27 Feb 2018, alongside other short films tackling the issue of homelessness.

Homelessness Awareness Week is 24 Feb - 3 March

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