Just a few weeks after college graduation, Jack Henry Robbins accepted the invitation of a homeless man and rode a city bus with him from Santa Monica to skid row.
It was the first stop on Robbins' nine-city cross-country tour as director of "Storied Streets," a new and startling documentary that his mother, Susan Sarandon, executive produced. There, he and his young crew came face to face with the stereotypes they so earnestly sought to dispel.
"That was by far the one place I felt in danger," said Robbins, 25, talking about skid row this month amid the dark wood and leather of the dean's office at his alma mater, USC, where the film was being screened.
"And that's the part of being homeless that scares us, the people who are aggressive and on drugs or mean to you or threatening. The truth of it is, though, that's a small percentage of the people who are homeless. As we went into different parts of America, it was way less threatening."
The film comes when documentary has proved to be an especially influential and news-making medium, exposing government espionage (Oscar-winning "Citizenfour") and a celebrity cult ("Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"), reopening a cold-case murder ("The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst") and questioning animal-training practices at Sea World ("Blackfish"). Cable networks have taken note of the renewed interest, with HBO and Showtime, plus online streaming service Netflix and others, entering the production and distribution game.
"Storied Streets" is one of eight films selected by Sarandon, as this month's guest curator, for AMC's subscription-based streaming service SundanceNow Doc Club series. Every month, the service enlists a high-profile artist to choose his or her favorite documentaries to feature for the next month.
Sarandon chose "Storied Streets" and another documentary she helped produce, "Waiting for Mamu," about Nepali social worker Pushpa Basnet, who rescues Katmandu children from prisons where they're held with their incarcerated mothers. That film helped earn Basnet CNN's Hero of the Year Award in 2012.
Also on Sarandon's list were the Oscar-nominated Hurricane Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water"; the Canadian film "Pink Ribbons, Inc.," which deconstructs the false hope of the famous breast cancer campaign; and the Sundance Jury Prize winner "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," a profile of the outspoken Chinese artist.
"What 'Storied Streets' and 'Mamu' have accomplished is incredible, and Harvey Weinstein hasn't even gotten behind them," quipped Sarandon. "Now when you make a documentary, you have to know what you're aiming toward."
The Oscar-winning actress is as famous for her progressive politics and social activism as she is for her film roles. When Thomas Morgan, a Charlotte, N.C., investment banker with filmmaking aspirations, landed in her New York pingpong club looking to make a documentary about homelessness, she offered to executive produce and bring in her son to direct.
"So many of these people could be contributing to society," said Sarandon. "It's all about imagining possibility. Which is the only absolute truth. If you take possibility away from people, I don't know how you go on."
By early 2014, Sarandon and Morgan had formed their own documentary production company, Reframed Pictures, in her Chelsea loft in hopes of using "Storied Streets" and their other films to spur social action. Sarandon said the company now serves as an "idea lab."
"Storied Streets" not only launched her son's career and her production company, it has already prompted Sarandon to testify before Congress on hate crimes against the homeless and has reached 30,000 viewers through a coordinated streaming effort with the National Coalition for the Homeless during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week last November. Hulu and M-GO are also streaming the film this month. By fall, the film is expected to make its TV debut via various PBS affiliates.
Robbins is tall and lanky with a friendly smile like his father, Tim Robbins, whose 23-year relationship with Sarandon ended in 2009. He has a gregarious demeanor that's more at ease on the set of the TV mockumentary he's now directing for Comedy Central than on skid row at midnight. As he reflected on the film, Sarandon, 68, sat next to him, exuding a quiet sort of gravitas.
In August 2011, the younger Robbins and his crew caravanned from skid row in two cars to Las Vegas to Denver to St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., to Kentucky, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., ending in New York. They stayed in cheap motels and with relatives along the way. Meanwhile, Morgan, the film's producer, and a separate crew conducted a few interviews near his home in Charlotte, including with children camping out in the woods with their destitute parents.
Robbins' crew was a young group, all film-school friends from USC whose relative naivete and discreet technology granted them access to people he believes might have steered clear of more seasoned filmmakers.
"Everything was done very small, to not draw attention," Robbins said.
They filmed on hand-held digital video cameras with small boom microphones that attached to iPhones, giving an intimacy and immediacy to each portrait. In one, a former homeless schizophrenic-turned-activist describes the nightly beatings he endured from strangers. In another, a college-educated, homeless veteran blends in on a subway car because he has nowhere else to go.
In Denver, the crew spent all afternoon outside dumpsters with some longtime addicts scavenging for scrap metal. Robbins perched on a curb to record their stories of car accidents that led to painkiller dependency that led to heroin.
"It was quite an interesting circumstance to be cut loose from college and be interviewing people who were cut loose from civil life," said Robbins. "To be thrust into a subject matter like that was really eye-opening, touching, grounding."