'Really heroic people': Documentary chronicling life on the streets screens in Edmonton

Us and Them, a documentary by Krista Loughton, follows the lives of four people struggling with homelessness over the span of more than a decade.

'Never look at a person living on our streets the same way again," says filmmaker Krista Loughton

Karen Montgrand (left) and filmmaker Krista Loughton. Loughton's documentary Us and Them examines homelessness. (Krista Loughton/Submitted to CBC)

Dawnellda Gauthier cowers on the concrete steps of a starkly lit parkade stairwell.

Then she stares at the camera and explains the stairwell is where she spent her nights during the eight years she slept on the streets.

A family photograph then fills the screen, showing Gauthier,as a happy, fresh-faced mother only six years before.

"If someone had told me at any time of my life that I would have been homeless, I would have thought they were nuts," Gauthier says, shaking her head. 

The heart-wrenching exchange is one of the most poignant moments of Us and Them, a documentary film project 10 years in the making.

'Helping create sense of compassion'

The project, by Canadian filmmaker Krista Loughton, follows the lives of four people struggling with homelessness and addictions over the span of more than a decade.

The film will premiere in Edmonton on Thursday, at a special public screening hosted by the United Way. 

"I really wanted to make a film where, when people left the theatre, they would never look at a person living on our streets the same way again," Loughton said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "And I can fairly confidently say, that's exactly what's happening.

"I certainly think it's helping create sense of compassion toward people that are experiencing homelessness and addiction."

Loughton first came up with the concept for the film in 2006, when she began chronicling the work of Rev. Al Tysick, a street minister who was dedicated to helping the poor in downtown Vancouver.

She began volunteering regularly in the city's poorest neighbourhoods and befriended Gauthier, Eddie Golko, Karen Montgrand and Stan Hunter.

The film paints an intimate portrait of each: Gauthier, a misunderstood 90-pound woman in her late 40s, who suffers from night terrors and violent outbursts; Montgrand, a middle-aged Métis woman grieving the death of her husband; Golko, a drug addict in his 40s with newfound faith and Hunter, 60, a charismatic former heroin addict often found panhandling in an oversized fur coat.

From 2006 until 2010, Loughton followed their lives as they struggled with addiction, homelessness and attempts to heal.

During that time Loughton became extremely close with her subjects, and her own personal problems became entwined with theirs. 

The film became so personal, she had to set the film aside for two years before she could bring herself to edit it. 

Opening their lives up to the public took a lot of bravery on the part of her friends, Loughton said. The fact that not all four survived to see the film completed speaks to the gravity of their struggles. 

"I really wanted to help people who were experiencing homelessness on our streets in Canada," she said. "That's what I was hoping for, to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country. 

"It's tough to see yourself up on screen, reliving that part of your life, so in my mind they're really heroic people for sharing as much as they did with our country in order to inspire action for others who are in that situation."

Thursday's screening at the Telus International Centre Auditorium at the University of Alberta will be followed by a panel discussion on homelessness in Edmonton. Loughton will be joined on the panel by Homeward Trust chief executive Susan McGee and Bishop Jane Alexander of the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton.

United Way agencies across Canada are hosting screenings of Us and Them this fall. The stories captured by the film are universal, said Mike Kluttig, vice-president of community engagement at the United Way of Alberta.

"When you see the film, even though it's shot in B.C., the landscape really just fades away because this is about homelessness in any city in Canada," Kluttig said. 

"When you see the issues that these individuals are dealing with, that stigma is just washed away.

'It creates a deeper understanding of the issues people face, and how we can not just stand by and watch."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC.