Joe Berlinger's and Bruce Sinofsky's film, "The Begging Game," drops down from the pillars of power where PBS' investigative series "Frontline" normally resides and explores the New York streets where panhandlers do their business.
Berlinger, Sinofsky and reporter Deborah Amos find that the business is more than begging--it's almost an art of acting, storytelling, conning, lying and appealing to sympathies.
Like any of us faced with a panhandler and torn between the wish to give and real doubts that the pennies and nickels help, Amos wonders about their plights with curiosity and a little skepticism.
Much of the film's time is spent with an elderly woman who calls herself Theresa and is battling the woes of infirmity by building up an extended street family around her (she claims no real family of her own). Like out of a Frank Capra movie, Theresa has a guardian angel--a publishing executive who arranges for medical appointments and housing.
Amos' investigation finds that "Theresa" is a pseudonym, that she does indeed have relatives and that she seems to view street life as her way of staying independent without monetary responsibilities.
We also hear from, but never really get to know, a singing African American panhandler named Jimmy who calls himself "the chocolate Elvis." Another act is mastered by a guy named Larry who begs in a wheelchair; Larry, the camera reveals, is able to walk.
All of which begs the begging question: Whose story do you believe? While Theresa is a good old soul, some of her buddies are mumbling crackheads. Some stories are true; some are fanciful lies. The saddest story of all is that, instead of a safety net, all these people have is a cup, maybe a cardboard shelter. In such a situation, perhaps lies become your best friend.
* "The Begging Game" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, and at 8 on KVCR-TV Channel 24.