Over the 10 months that Australian documentarian Shanks Rajendran spent treading the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row, he witnessed the sale, purchase, and consumption of every imaginable drug. With his Panasonic HPX250 camera, he filmed substance abuse up close and interviewed the neighborhood’s many inhabitants about how they came to be there, living, shooting, snorting, and pimping. The result is Los Scandalous, a feature-length film that examines daily life in the 0.4 square miles (roughly 50 blocks) between L.A.’s Downtown Historic Core and Bunker Hill.
“I’d seen hoods and blocks but it was nothing like all these people living in tents and hustling,” Rajendran recalls about his first visit to Skid Row. “It was the craziest thing in terms of tents and tents and tents. I was like wow, there are so many stories out here.”
Skid Row is occupied by roughly 2,500 homeless individuals or about 3% of the country’s homeless population, according to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. But Rajendran’s film isn’t about homeless advocacy. Nor is it, overtly, a morality tale. It’s simply a portrayal of the street. “In order to improve the system, we must first see the reality,” he says. “My one rule was to give the subject–the people, the place–the opportunity to speak for themselves.”
Los Scandalous features an erratic succession of short interviews. Like the lives of its subjects, the film lacks a narrative or organizing structure. But it does have a protagonist: 33-year-old Lavell Putman, a Skid Row resident whom Rajendran met one night after a bunch of men stole his camera. Putman, initially antagonistic, retrieved the camera and ended up becoming the director’s friend and de facto guide. He led Rajendran through the streets nightly for nearly a year and he interviews most of the subjects.
“We had to be careful,” Rajendran says. “Lavell is a Blood. He’s been in jail, he’s been arrested. I always had to watch my back.” But Putman also provided vital access. “He knows the problems. He knows what’s going on. When we went to the streets, we said, ‘Hey, do you want to talk?’ Say what you have to say. Whatever concerns you.”
Rajendran learned that the lack of bathrooms, poor sanitation, and scant access to clean water are major problems. He learned the difference between what prostitutes consider a good pimp and a bad one. And he learned that people on Skid Row love the rain, because water cleans the streets. Most of all, he learned that even the worst of Skid Row life happens in the open. “Outside the mission [homeless shelter], they’re selling crack pipes,” he says. “Who’s controlling the streets?”
Based on the raw, unflinching footage of addiction and desperation in Los Scandalous, the answer is, sadly, no one.