When Krista Loughton created Us and Them, the last thing she wanted to do was make "just another film about homelessness."
Six years in the making, her documentary is anything but. The film, which features traditional healing practices of the First Nations medicine wheel to deal with homelessness and addiction, has been an education and life-changing experience for Loughton, who refused to exploit her subjects who bared their souls on camera.
The Victoria filmmaker, reluctant to publicly discuss her passion project until now because of this, was well aware her film could be perceived as exploitative. A reminder by one of her "friends," as she describes her subjects, increased her resolve.
"I didn't want it to be just another piece of artwork that helped the artist but not the homeless people involved," says Loughton.
"Stan was adamant about that. He used to refer to me as being part of the 'homeless industry.' "
Her intention was to pro-vide a truthful and respectful forum for voices that so often fall on deaf ears.
Stan, 60, was on the street for 30 years. He panhandled outside Wellburns, sleeping in a cot in its parking lot.
"People like you come down, take pictures and go to the gallery, make money and don't give us anything," he told Loughton.
A former heroin addict who moved into Our Place in 2007, Stan is one of four addicts whose stories are told.
Another is Dawnellda, a "spirited" 90-pound woman in her late 40s who would sometimes throw "fits of frustration," had her teeth knocked out after being kicked in the face and down stairwells, and suffered from night terrors.
"She'd walk all night long and get robbed," said Loughton, noting the diminutive addict was one of the most "severe cases" at the drop-in centre where they met. "It was difficult for people to understand her. She was barred from shelters."
Dawnellda also inspired the film's title, which reflects the discrimination many street persons feel.
"One of the most common things I heard was they don't feel they're part of society," Loughton said.
Eddie, a drug addict in his 40s who spent a third of his adult life in jail, broke more stereotypes, she said.
"He learned about Buddhism from a nun and had a spiritual awakening," recalled Loughton, noting he later went to university.
And Karen, a middle-aged MÃ©tis woman Loughton describes as "one of the funniest people I know" dulls her pain with alcohol.
When Loughton began her journey, she figured she could heal her subjects as they related their experiences.
It was after "the reality of street life came crashing down on me" - when she saw for herself what mentor Rev. Al Tysick said was an average of two deaths in Victoria's homeless community each week - she realized she could only do so much.
"I realized I can't fix their lives any more than I can digest their lunches for them," Loughton said. "But I can cheerlead."
Loughton also learned the healing journey had as much to do with her. She had to set the film aside for a while to work on her own issues after a 2010 inter-view with Vancouver author and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Mate.
"He brought up all my childhood stuff, my struggle with depression and my parents getting divorced when I was three," recalled Loughton. "I was broken-hearted over [her subjects] and their pain. They were my mirror."
Mate delved into early-childhood experience, she said, noting many homeless people were responding to childhood abuse.
"If you don't get the love and care you require, especially prior to three, your brain circuitry doesn't work," Loughton said.
Her other mentor was Phil Lane, Jr., the hereditary chief and internationally recognized leader in human and community development who chairs the Four Worlds International Institute. He referred her to the chiefs of the Esquimalt and Songhees nations before essentially giving her a green light to respectfully use the sacred medicine wheel as a healing tool.
"It's controversial in a sense because I'm white and it's an ancient and sacred tradition passed down orally," she said.
"They say there are more teachings in the medicine wheel than grains of sand on the beach."
What really floored her was that, coincidentally, Lane was working with Salasan Associates, the international development consulting firm her father founded. And the woman Lane passed Loughton's information to was Renata, her stepmother.
"Whoa! What are the odds?" said Loughton, "From then on, I never considered my white skin a barrier."
Although homelessness is a complicated issue, Loughton hopes her film demystifies it and helps spark a change in attitudes.
"The community needs to be supportive," she says. "Be nice. Don't ignore them."
Loughton and her creative partner, David Malysheff of Gamut Productions, pooled resources and skills to make the film. To raise the $25,000 in post-production costs, they're launching a crowd-funding campaign today at indiegogo.com/usandthem.
All profits will be donated back to the street community.
"That's for Stan," said Loughton, whose friend died during shooting.