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2019 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: The act of running is inherently about striving for a goal; one sets out with a determination to compete, earn a place, achieve a PB. For some, that is a life lesson that needs reinforcing. Judge Craig Mitchell of the Los Angeles Criminal Court runs, and he does so with a group of recovering addicts from the Midnight Mission facility, a bastion of hope located on Skid Row in downtown LA. The journey that the Judge and his runners undertook to run a marathon in Italy while fighting their own demons is the soaring narrative of Skid Row Marathon, from the husband and wife production team of Gabriele and Mark Hayes. “The film is about second chances, about reconnecting with your own dignity,” says Gabriele, who spoke to SCREEN-SPACE with her partner and co-director ahead of the film’s Australian premiere at the 2019 MDFF

SCREEN-SPACE: Judge Mitchell is the spiritual core of the film; the recovering addicts and homeless are the many hearts. When did the balancing act that is your narrative structure start to take shape?

GABRIELE: After we had shot about 300 hours of footage over three years we started stringing out the material in big segments. We had several rough cuts focusing on our main five characters - Judge Mitchell, David Askew, Ben Shirley, Rafael Cabrera and Rebecca Hayes. We used a big board with index cards to shape the story, which really helped to see where critical scenes were missing. We realized that is wasn’t clear who Judge Mitchell is; his backstory and his family were missing. But Judge Mitchell’s wife, Juliet, made it clear at the beginning that she didn’t want to be part of the documentary. It took us over three years to convince her that she needed to be a part of it. The interview with Juliet and the graduation of Judge Mitchell’s son Jordan were the last things we filmed.

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you envision, and budget for, a production that would take you to Ghana and Italy? Over the course of the shoot, did the unpredictability of a factual film project ever take a toll?

MARK: Our project is about homeless people running marathons. We were often reminded how similar running a marathon is to making a documentary. The first few miles are easy.  It’s around mile fifteen that you have to start digging deep and making sure things don’t fall apart. And just like a marathon, it’s important to go the distance and to finish. (Pictured, above; Mark and Gabriele Hayes)

GABRIELE: We thought it would take about a year, maximum two years, and that the only trip we would need to take was Ghana and we’d end with the LA Marathon in 2014. However, we returned from Ghana (and) Rebecca joined the running club and we felt her story was very compelling. We followed her to Seattle where she had been a heroin addict living in an alley with her three year old son. We realized that Rome had to be the coming together of all the stories. It was a once in a lifetime experience. Rome was the most expensive part of the production but it was all worth it. Then the editing process took over nine months to finish, and good editors are very expensive. We were running out of money and often came close to giving up. Then we thought of all the runners, like Rebecca for example. She was working, going to school, had a five year-old and trained for marathons. We thought if she can do it, so can we. In December 2016 we had a private screening for friends (and) a well-known editing consultant came up to us and said that he liked our film but we needed to make some changes. $50,000 later, we have the film that you will see at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

SCREEN-SPACE: What revelations about the nature of addiction impacted you during the shoot?

GABRIELE: We learnt a lot about addiction during the four years of filming. Initially, we had several runners we would follow but they relapsed and disappeared. It really affected me personally because they seemed on such a good path of getting better and then all of a sudden they relapsed. It happened especially with people who couldn’t handle the stress of getting a job or getting back into school. It was too much for them. It was also very sad to see Mody relapse after he opened his luggage store. We were very proud of him that he was sober for over a year. We asked him why he would do that and he responded, “I am lonely.” Our hearts sunk and we understood. People relapse if they don’t have a very good support system. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Was earning the trust of the Skid Row community, having them allow your cameras into their lives, one of the production's main challenges?

GABRIELE: At the beginning it was very hard to gain the trust of the runners. We read about Judge Mitchell and his running club in March 2013, just before the LA Marathon. The next day we contacted the Judge and pitched the documentary. At the time the running club was still small, maybe 5-8 people. He was on board right away but warned us that the runners may not be interested in being filmed. He suggested that we run with them first. So, we ran with the club for six weeks before we started shooting. We started out filming just the training runs and then slowly asked Rafael, Ben, and David for interviews. We felt their stories were the strongest. Rafael was the most open one and we could follow him around; Ben didn’t trust us at all and it took a long time for him to let us film him. For example, he wouldn’t tell us when he was moving out of the Midnight Mission. What we learnt was that when Mark and I would just film our subjects, in that ‘fly on the wall’ style, they would open up and be themselves. Also, it was very dangerous to film on Skid Row. People threw bottles at us, had knives and ran after us to destroy our cameras. We constantly had to be aware that something could happen. (Pictured, above; Judge Craig Mitchell) 

SCREEN-SPACE: If there is a call-to-action that you hope resonates with audiences, what would that be?  

GABRIELE: So many times we ignore people that are in the streets or abandoned because we are so focused on ourselves. Look around yourself and see if someone is in need.  It doesn’t take much, like Judge Mitchell said, maybe just a phone call on behalf of someone. We hope that after seeing the film the audience will be inspired to take action to get involved in their own community. (Pictured, above; Midnight Mission runner Rebecca Hayes) 

MARK: It became clear that the Judge was a very special individual. Here was a guy whose day job is to send people off to prison for long sentences but in his spare times helps many of the same types of people to get their lives together through running. While making this film, we learned that when it comes to some of the biggest problems facing us as a society, it is better to do something, even if it’s small, and be part of a solution rather than just doing nothing.

SKID ROW MARATHON screens on July 27 at Cinema Nova as part of the 2019 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL. Full ticketing and session details can be found at the event's official website.

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