After the international premiere Sunday, September 9, of the Emilio Estevez’ film, “the public,” the second screening Monday of the Cincinnati-shot movie played to a full house at the Winter Garden Theatre at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film centers around the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s downtown branch and the moral dilemmas the library staff, police and prosecutors face when homeless men refuse to leave the building during a bitterly cold Cincinnati night.
After the movie Estevez and the cast, including Jenna Malone, Christian Slater, Alec Baldwin and Michael K. Williams, joined the audience for a discussion of the movie, including the broader question of the plight of the homeless in many big cities and the moral obligation of caring for them. The first question for Estevez, who wrote, produced and starred in the movie, was where his sense of social right and wrong came from. His answer? His father, Martin Sheen. Sheen has been arrested more than 60 times involving a number of social causes, from workers’ rights to conservation to nuclear proliferation.
“In the ‘80s and early ‘90s when my father was getting arrested,” Estevez said, “it was often on the nightly news, it was on the local news, sometimes it would be on national television, and I was watching it with my mom and I’d say, ‘He’s a raving lunatic.’
“I understood what he was doing but I didn’t understand him spiritually until many, many years later. I was so moved by that later in life, that I thought this film should reflect that.”
The film, which took 11 years to reach the screen, was designed, Estevez said, to show the struggles the homeless face each day, something that Slater credited Estevez for including. “Certainly, an actor, director, writer that I admire, his skills his abilities to do these kinds of stories, and do the research required to tell these kinds of stories, it’s to show that these people may be homeless but they’re still human beings and we’re all in this thing together.”
The more than decade-long development of the movie meant the political climate in the U.S. is certainly different now than when the process started. “I would say it was an unhappy accident that the movie found its way to now being so relevant, much more than it would have been when this journey began.”
Not just the political climate changed, so did some of the locations. “There were a lot of happy accidents, and one of them was the polar bear (a stuffed polar bear prominent in the film is on display on the library’s main floor). “When Jeffrey Wright’s character says ‘This polar bear is on loan from the natural history museum,’ it actually was. When I scouted the location, he wasn’t there, I come back, and there’s this polar bear and I thought, ‘how do I shoot around this?’ and then I thought no, let’s embrace it.”
The movie ends with the open-ended question of how public spaces handle the homeless issue, which can be a daunting task. “Like any good script, everyone is right,” said Baldwin. “Homelessness is back. It’s back in terms of its visibility and I always think of where I live, in New York, it’s like musical chairs, the music stops, there’s a seat at the table for the overwhelming majority of people, but there’s always been a group of people in major cities in the United States who struggle with housing. People can become homeless with one missed rent payment, they are one payment away of being evicted and being homeless.”
“the public” screens two more times during TIFF, September 6-16. See a preview of the movie at https://www.tiff.net/tiff/the-public/