Greg King’s new documentary, Our House, is about an experimental Christian community in Brooklyn. Led by several young, punk, vegan Christians, Our House is an abandoned warehouse-turned-homestead for the chronically homeless and recovering addicts. The handful of individuals who end up living there experience a new kind of community, one where prayer and love abound. Beautifully shot and delicately edited, the film is sure to challenge the viewer’s ideas of community and definition of home.
Since the film centers on a community that tries to hide from public view, how did you find “Our House”?
I was invited to one of their prayer meetings one night by a friend of a friend of the Our House guys, who herself was visiting New Y0rk, interested in starting a Christian community there. The story of how she learned of them is rather long, but I could summarize it by pointing out that there is a network of “intentional Christian communities” growing in the United States, and I simply tapped into it through random connections. My friend and I were having dinner, and she invited me to tag along with her to meet the guys one cold early March night, because she thought I might find it interesting. When we got to the building, I couldn’t believe there were people living in it, as it was a long-abandoned warehouse that looked like no one had set foot in it in a decade. Derek – one of the dreadlocked squatter punks – answered the door, and led us into the pitch-black space (we used our cell phones as flashlights), where the only light (and heat) came from this tent they had hung inside, filled with candles and a propane heater, and a dozen people huddled within. They welcomed us warmly, and continued on with group prayer, singing, and discussion. I was immediately transfixed at the intimacy of their lifestyle and spirit, and wanted to document the community on film right away.
Setting out to take over an abandoned warehouse and make it into a home for the chronically homeless is ambitious to begin with, but these young men also choose to live there themselves. For a viewer who can’t imagine making such an extreme lifestyle choice, what would you want them to take away from the film? How can they relate?
The Our House building was just one manifestation of how the young men behind it engage with the poor and less fortunate around us. They have all made commitments to invest time in the lives of others in simple, concrete ways, and the building was a culmination of that, not a starting point. Derek was inspiring to me for the casual approach he has in striking up conversations with just about anyone he meets on the street, and developing authentic friendships. JP spent a lot of one-on-one time with Dan, teaching him weight-lifting and sharing rich conversations about their life experiences, so that Dan knew he could always turn to JP for support on his road to recovery from drugs. Neil “escorted” Monica on appointments in New York City, holding her hand in reassurance when she had to pass by neighborhoods where she used to get high, in support of her newfound sobriety. To them, it wasn’t about creating another program or shelter, but developing friendships and relationships of love and concern for people less fortunate. Whether or not they had a physical building, they were guided by a desire to personally know people living on the street, and help them in any way they could. My hope is that viewers would be inspired by the film to find their own means of doing the same in their neighborhoods and cities.
While we never hear your voice, the presence of the filmmakers is clearly felt as the subjects address the camera. What was your relationship with the people in the house like? Were there ever any ethical or personal dilemmas in making the film?
The guys who started Our House were very accommodating, allowing us to start filming soon after meeting them. Not everyone living in the space wanted to be on camera, and we respected their wishes, but those folks seen in the film were basically open to it from the get-go. I think because of the personalities of the Our House founders, their generosity of spirit to try and appreciate the reality of anyone they met, and the kind of lifestyles the residents have had living on the street, it really wasn’t a big deal to them to be filmed. “Documentaries” weren’t a part of their life experiences, really, so they were natural on camera and didn’t think too much of it.
While at first we felt somewhat awkward in our role as “filmmakers” (we mostly worried that they would think we were square, since we had no tattoos or piercings), before long we became friends with the group, especially after they were kicked out of the building. We never felt any ethical dilemmas really, but we were wrapped up in the fates of some of the residents once they had to move out. I personally became close to Dan Taylor and was really worried about what would happen to him. There was one time that I was shooting on my own, and I just couldn’t film him, because it was on the eve of his having to leave the building, and it was simply too painful to try and interview him in that vulnerable state. But, thankfully, soon after that his situation improved in a dramatic fashion, and in a way that was fun to incorporate into the film.
I see that you worked together with another filmmaker. How did that inform your creative process?
Our House is a collaboration at every level with my co-director and friend David Teague, an immensely talented filmmaker living in Brooklyn. It’s one of the most collaborative projects I’ve ever worked on, which has been a lot of fun, and I feel I’ve learned a lot from him. David and I are both freelance film editors and cinematographers, and we approached this project with equal enthusiasm to make it entirely on our own.
We both come from a background in experimental Super 8 and 16mm films, and are inspired by the avant-garde movements in film. We therefore had a like-minded approach to the cinematography, and the desire to incorporate celluloid film with HD video (our primary format). For example, we knew right away that we would shoot the space itself as a “character” in its own right, using film to accomplish a shift in cinematic form, as the building possessed a sacred quality for the residents. Also, we knew we wanted to shoot using only available light – no artificial lights brought in from the outside – in order to match the lifestyle and ethos of the community.
Once in the edit room, I did the early assembly cuts, and then he and I would trade the film back and forth to find its structure and to fashion the story arc of Dan, our main character. Our material could have taken any number of directions, but we learned through editing and pitching the film that having a principal character arc made the most sense. I contributed a lot to individual scene content, directing the scoring process, and fashioning the artistic montages, and David contributed a lot to story and plot structure, honing the scenes and fine-tuning a lot of moments. We were in constant dialogue about all elements, so this is a generalization, but gives a sense of our process.
Lastly, I think it’s important to note that whereas I am a Christian, David is not. Although we differ on worldview, we agreed on how and why we wanted this film to be made. We are exasperated by the common conflation of social conservatism and religious belief in this country, and find the people behind Our House interesting for what they are striving to achieve on a local level. Their lifestyle choices and radical/progressive Christianity are refreshing to us.
You’ve recently begun screening the film at festivals around the country. How have audiences responded? Were there any surprising reactions?
We’ve been greatly encouraged by the response so far, given the predominance of Christian voices in the film. In an early test screening, the audience [reaction] was mixed about “all the God talk,” which was both funny to hear and yet instructive in how we wanted the film to read. We didn’t make the film to appeal to only Christian audiences, so we took this to heart, and were careful to strike a balance of illuminating our characters’ rich personalities without overwhelming the audience with Christian jargon or preachiness.
At our World and U.S. premieres, we were happy to see that the film was very well received, and that the audience was mostly inspired by its story of community and reaching out to others. We’ve had our share of odd questions, but I think the community portrayed is so unique in a way, that audiences are quite engaged, and interested in knowing more about the lives of the characters after the film was made, our filmmaking process, and what this community might represent on larger societal levels. Also, we’ve been approached by pastors and individuals interested in screening the film to support homeless ministries and progressive Christian communities, which is an encouragement, as this was a hope for the ongoing life of the film.
“OUR HOUSE” (2010), directed by Greg King & David Teague. 56 Minutes