Sights unseen

Revelations from St. Pete filmmakers and a globe-trotting photographer

click to enlarge WHIRLPOOL: Thomas J. Abercrombie's photo of pilgrims praying at the Kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (1965). - Courtesy Fmopa
Courtesy Fmopa
WHIRLPOOL: Thomas J. Abercrombie's photo of pilgrims praying at the Kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (1965).

A great privilege of art is to provide a voice for the unheard and a screen for the unseen.

Two bodies of work on view in the Bay area do just that.

The makers of Easy Street, to their own horrified surprise, could not have chosen a more fortuitous moment to release a documentary about St. Pete's homeless population. With box-cutter-armed police drumming up a blockbuster's worth of public interest, suddenly this picture is hot.

In downtown Tampa, images of the Middle East by National Geographic photographer Tom Abercrombie offer a glimpse of the beauty — and antiquity — of that complex region's cultures in a moment when Iran seems poised to follow Iraq into American headlines and military history.

The sudden spotlight on Easy Street finds its filmmakers in a bit over their heads. Stephen Ashton, owner of St. Pete-based Multimedia Productions, and Andrew Lee, his cinematographer and former employee, were just looking for something to do between TV commercials and corporate videos when Lee hit on the idea of interviewing the homeless people he saw along St. Pete's paradisiacal waterfront; Ashton, intrigued, agreed.

The film begins in a random — or, if you prefer, democratic — fashion, following the stories of people who appear only too glad to have someone listen. Soon, five main characters emerge: G.W., an articulate park-bench philosopher whose account of committing accidental homicide at age 17 inspires horror and sympathy; Peg, trapped in a cycle of abusive relationships and later hit by a car; Jaime, evicted from a boyfriend's home and struggling to find care for two children; Patrick, an alcoholic with a penchant for off-color jokes; and Karl, a 19-year-old with blond hair and an infectious smile.

The narrative takes an unexpected turn when Ashton, haunted by the thought of Karl alone on a cold and soggy Christmas day, steps across the invisible line between documentary filmmaker and subject and offers him a vacant apartment behind his business. In retrospect, Ashton says, he was naïve enough to believe that providing Karl with a roof over his head might solve the kid's problems. What he learned, and what viewers discover, is that issues for Karl are significantly more complicated than a lack of shelter.

The documentary is transformed from this point on into something like a reality television show. Rarely have I felt more awkward watching a film than seeing Karl proudly hand Ashton rent money after getting a temporary job. On the other hand, never has the reality of being bipolar struck me as profoundly as when Karl describes (to Ashton) how he was fired for turning an insignificant conflict with another employee into a major disruption.

To its credit, the film poses difficult questions without retreating into easy answers. (One ironic revelation: Food services are so plentiful that, as one person puts it, you can gain weight as a homeless person in St. Pete — but you can't find the aid to get you out of homelessness.) The Studio@620 will screen the film for a third time on Sat., Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. A discussion will follow, but as of this writing, participants had not been set.

Bottom line: Go and see it, and make up your own mind.

National Geographic photographer Tom Abercrombie knew what it felt like to be personally moved by his subjects.

During a 38-year career at the magazine, the globetrotting Minnesota native became the first journalist (in 1957) to visit the South Pole. He dove with Jacques Cousteau and earned legend status for exploits like amputating a pilgrim's gangrenous toes in the Himalayas (while suffering from typhoid himself).

In the course of covering the Middle Eastern beat, Abercrombie did something else that surprised his colleagues: He became a practicing Muslim.

A portfolio of his images, from places including Iran, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, are now on display at FMoPA. They open a window into a region that, since the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when these images were taken, has become the epicenter of global oil production and a rhetorical specter (part of an "axis of evil," some have suggested) for the U.S. Organized by the magazine for a national traveling exhibit after Abercrombie died last year, the glimpses of a culture virtually unknown to Americans except via hair-raising headlines could hardly be better timed.

Abercrombie's photos offer a straightforward message: Middle Eastern culture is a complex and beautiful thing. The image that drives this home most powerfully depicts the circulation of pilgrims within the sacred mosque at Mecca, the Saudi city that all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it must make pilgrimage to once in their life. Abercrombie made the journey four times and created this image of supplicants turning like a whirlpool around the central, box-like black Kaaba.

Other images depict the colonial architecture of Algiers, a bustling city street in Palestine, pilgrims piling aboard Volvo vans and itinerant Bedouins frozen in time, all framed with Abercrombie's eye for catching the iconic, cover-worthy shot.

P.S.: A great way to get more out of FMoPA exhibits is to tune into their podcasts! For Abercrombie's show, download conversations with his wife, Lynn, and a National Geographic editor. If you can never seem to get to those Saturday morning museum talks, this is the next best thing.

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