Award-winning Off the Streets for Good to screen Thursday

By Patrick Bracken
Citizen Chronicle Entertainment Writer
Editor@TheCitizenChronicle.com

SOUTHBRIDGE — When the Shawna Shea Film Festival opens here this Thursday, it does so with a free screening of a powerful documentary about homelessness told from the point of view of survivors and the professionals who are trying to help.  Off the Streets for Good is the latest film from California State University Northridge Psychology Professor Dr. Luciana Lagana, who was inspired to make the film after a chance encounter with one of her students.

“He approached me and asked if I knew of a safe space for him to sleep,” she recounted recently from her office at the university.  The conversation prompted Dr. Lagana, a passionate advocate for the rights of marginalized groups, to investigate the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles, where she lives and works.

Dr. Luciana Lagana with an award for her film “Off the Streets for Good,” which will be shown at the Shawna Shea Film Festival on Thursday afternoon at the Ruth Wells Center for the Arts in Southbridge. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Lagana’s filmmaking career started just a few years ago, but the arts have been in her blood since her childhood in Italy.  “I was a child performer, modelling, singing and dancing. I always tried to cheer people up when they were sad.”  She drew inspiration from her father, a World War II hero who collaborated with the Allies in their fight against the Nazis.  “I try to stick my neck where it’s the worst,” she says.  “I’m trying to improve empathy and attitudes towards this minority, [the homeless].”

Off the Streets for Good accomplishes this goal via interviews with four survivors of homelessness who have successfully turned their lives around.  Unlike many stories of the homeless, this film avoids showing the day-to-day realities of being homeless:  the cardboard boxes, the soup kitchens, life on the streets.  Instead it shows viewers four ex-homeless who could be the people next door, survivors of an ordeal most don’t want to imagine.  This was a deliberate choice on Dr. Lagana’s part.

“We are being bombarded by negative images of the homeless. [The images] are real, but what are they doing?  Our film is defending people who are identifying with the possibility of being homeless.”  The film points to research on how human brains react when shown negative images of homeless people. “What our brain is doing generally is de-humanizing the homeless. We see them as a not human beings.“  Dr. Lagana’s goal in making off the Streets for Good is to increase empathy for the homeless by showing them as ordinary people.  In fact, the woman presenting this research in the film, Dr. Maggie Shiffrar, is herself a survivor of homelessness.

Dr. Shiffrar became homeless when she came out as lesbian and was kicked out of her home.  Her story is not uncommon; People who identify as LGBTQ make up a significant portion of the homeless population.  Two of the four survivors of homelessness that Dr. Lagan presents in her film are gay, and the lack of family support were critical factors in their downward spiral into homelessness.

Off the Streets for Good also outlines some possible solutions to the epidemic of homelessness facing the country today.  Interviewee Wade Trimmer, who runs the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission, talks about “reallocating funds.”  For instance, he suggests giving the homeless access to health clinic rather than sending then to emergency rooms.  Dr. Lagana’s focus is on education.

“We need to involve children in their understanding and empathy of the homeless.  We need to get families and children involved at the beginning of their lives to stop the stereotyping of the homeless.”  With Off the Streets for Good, Dr. Lagana begins that process.

Viewers can see Off the Streets for Good for free when it kicks of the Southbridge portion of the Shawna Shea Film Festival at the Ruth Wells Center for the Arts (formerly the QVCAH Arts Center), located at 111 Main Street, Southbridge.  The showtime is Thursday, October 4 at 2 p.m.  Don’t miss this powerful film.

For more information about the Shawna Shea Film Festival, visit www.shawnasheaff.org.

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