How much do panhandlers really make? Can you possibly make a living at this? How much of a difference does a funny sign make? Will people give to a guy in a banana suit? Does every sign have to say "God Bless?" Important questions. I aim to find the answers. Give me a dollar. God Bless.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A review from Capitol Weekly

Click image to enlarge
Special Screening
“Why Lie? I Need A Drink?”
Director: Keith Lowell Jensen

If you’ve spent more than thirty minutes in the downtown Sacramento area, you’ve probably had somebody ask you for money. If you’ve spent more than a few days here, you’ve probably had the same people ask you for money multiple times, using the same stories and circumstances. In my own experience, after hearing one woman explain to me that she just needed enough for a bus fare to get home to her daughter, at about the same time of the day on five or six different occasions, it became apparent that it was either a scam or she had no ability whatsoever to plan ahead. It turned out that she lived in a hotel around the corner.

Over a three year period, and with the help of local filmmakers Jonathan Morken and John Astobiza, comedian and writer Keith Lowell Jensen tested the theory, that many people seem to share, that some panhandlers make more money on the street than they might in regular employment. Armed with cardboard signs and a banana suit, Jensen took to the street corners of Sacramento in an attempt to make more in an hour than at his day job. He also tried begging for money online, with personal websites, chat room requests, and even an e-bay auction for advertising space on his off-ramp sign. In one experiment, he follows online suggestions for sign phrases with some humorous results.

Throughout the documentary, Jensen seeks advice from other panhandlers, discusses the phenomenon with law enforcement officials and passersby, and continually seeks out the elusive, wealthy panhandler. Surprisingly, he wasn’t the only one doing this and the film also includes discussions with others who have either examined the world of panhandling or tried it out for themselves in search of a story or as an experiment. And along the way, the project gained substantial media attention, with newspaper, radio, and even TV appearances.

However, there’s also the violent side of the undertaking, with homeless people sharing stories of assaults and even one altercation that occurred while the team was filming at a gas station. One man recounts his experiences on the streets and says that he was treated better in prison, while a woman who has lost her children to drug addiction describes her “home” on the side of an off-ramp as being relatively pleasant because she at least has a mattress under the foliage.

The film is shot and edited in a simple style, and the experiment is as much an extended gag and art project as a serious social commentary, but it can’t help being thought provoking in the process. As Jensen himself discovers, regardless of how lucrative the undertaking is or isn’t, it’s certainly not an easy way to make money on a regular basis.

The world premiere screening of “Why Lie? I Need A drink” takes place at the historic Crest Theatre, for one night only, on Friday, March 7th at 8:30pm. Additional information about the film and the project can be found online at www.whylieineedadrink.com.

Review by Tony Sheppard, co-director of the Sacramento Film and Music Festival (www.sacfilm.com), originally written for Capitol Weekly (www.capitolweekly.net) .

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