Amherst's 'Happy Frog' is a cow: New documentary 'Homeless in a College Town' gives in-depth look at local poverty; starts collection

Last modified: Sunday, September 01, 2013

AMHERST — A film documentary that gives Amherst’s homeless residents a voice and examines the challenges low-income people face in finding housing, could premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Filmmakers Sari Gagnon and Matthew Heron-Duranti are setting their sights high for the public release of their movie, “Homeless in a College Town,” with an ambition to have it screened at the famous Park City, Utah, festival. But they also plan to enter the movie into festivals across the country to showcase the plight of some people in the college community.

“We are hoping for a long festival run,” Gagnon said.

Gagnon, of Hartford County, Conn., is making her directorial debut after 11 years as a performance artist. Heron-Duranti, of Amherst, is serving as executive producer. The duo began filming in summer 2012 and continued through the fall, winter and this past spring, capturing homeless individuals in all seasons and weather conditions and speaking to experts, including policymakers and people from local agencies.

Gagnon said the film gives perspectives of what it’s like for homeless people to endure in the bitter cold of winter or the oppressive heat of summer, including the detrimental effects on health.

“The film explores reasons why people are homeless,” Heron-Duranti said. “It was a really unique time to film this documentary.”

The film also marks their first effort through the Amherst-based Counterfeit Cow Productions, the company they formed in 2011 with a mission statement that includes “film can be a powerful platform to create and inspire social change.”

They feel fortunate, they say, that they were able to shoot at a period when housing issues, including the pressure of student rentals, has dominated conversations in town.

Heron-Duranti said the film also was shot at a transitional time in Amherst as the community gets accustomed to having a shelter in place each winter.

Heron-Duranti, 26, and Gagnon, who won’t divulge her age, spent considerable time on the streets and in the woods to conduct interviews with homeless people, but also went to places like the Amherst Survival Center.

Tracey Levy, the program director at the center, said the filmmakers interviewed staff, volunteers and guests and her perception was that Gagnon and Heron-Duranti were “coming from a good place.”

State Rep. Ellen Story was interviewed for what she said could be a powerful documentary about how Amherst handles these issues.

“What makes us unique is we address the problems better than some other places,” Story said. “In that way we could be helpful to other communities.”

“Homeless in a College Town” has cost the filmmakers more than $50,000. They were able to defray some of the costs through online fundraising appeals, as well as getting local sponsorships and financial assistance from friends.

Though they made a film, they also wanted to participate in meeting the needs of homeless, Gagnon said. This meant volunteering at the shelter, donating clothing and sleeping bags and also soliciting signatures for a petition circulated last year to appeal for additional beds at the shelter. But what they might achieve in spreading information about the issue will be more important. “You can reach so many people with film; this movie has potential for social change,” Gagnon said.

Since wrapping up filming in late spring, Gagnon, who works part time as acting teacher for Performing Arts Programs in Connecticut, and Heron-Duranti, who works part time as a manager at his family’s restaurant Sibie’s in South Amherst, have been in post-production, using both Amherst Media’s studio and a private facility in town, as they try to get the film done in time to submit to Sundance.

As they wrap up the work, a permanent reminder of the first film done through their production company will be unveiled.

A lifesize cow sculpture crafted by Amherst artist Kamil Peters from recycled metal will be installed on North Pleasant Street in front of Loose Goose Cafe Sept. 7. 3:30 p.m. prior to an event that evening at Kendrick Park called Carnival: A Night of Wonder.

“As part of our outreach efforts, we wanted to have a lasting impression on the town,” Gagnon said. “We didn’t want our work to stop.”

The cow will function like the bronze “Happy Frog” in front of the First Churches in Northampton, which the Friends of Hampshire County Homeless Individuals installed five years ago. “We’re really hoping it will bring the community together for years to come,” Gagnon said.

The cow will double as piggy bank, Gagnon said, allowing people to have a year-round reminder to help fund agencies such as Craig’s Doors, the nonprofit that has run the Amherst shelter for the past two seasons, as well as others that support the homeless and poor.


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