Some documentaries strike you so deeply in your dark, twisted, cynical heart that they become a viscerally entrenched experience, as much a part of your memory bank as starting school or falling in love. 'Lucky' - like 'Man On A Wire' or 'Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their Johns' before it - is one such film. When journalist Laura Checkoway picked up a Canon XLH1. seven years ago, she'd never shot a single frame of film before. She could have had no idea then about the remarkable journey she was to undertake, nor an inkling of the extraordinary story she was about to document. We talk to Lucky and filmmaker Laura Checkoway about creating a moment in time that is not only a candid comment on class, race and destitution, but also a dedication to the extraordinary relationship between director and subject. This isn't an anthropological feature, an outsider studying a subject, but a woman talking eye-to-eye with another woman.
Laura, this is your very first film, right?
Laura: Yes, I had no experience at all (laughs). This is the very first thing I made so I literally learned as I went. I studied Poetry and Creative Writing at college, and then I worked at Vibe Magazine out of college for six or seven years. I started as a Fact-Checker and ended up as a Senior Editor when I left, and then I was a freelance for Rolling Stone and a bunch of magazines. This [Lucky] was the first story that I pitched actually - I'd always been given assignments before then. The Fader commissioned me to do a story; they did a photo piece about Lucky. Even before that was published though, I'd started filming her. I just started following her and her friends; I didn't know what it was for at that point.
How did you meet?
Lucky: Christopher Street and West 4th was where we met. In the beginning, there was four of us, but it ended up being just me because everyone had a regular life; they went clubbing, they hung out with their parents… With me, I hid who I was, so no one knew I was homeless, I didn't have parents, I lived in the streets… No one knew anything.
Laura: We met because we were all talking about Lil Wayne. It was really late, maybe midnight and I overheard them talking about Wayne. I had just done a story on him and they were impressed by that.
Why do you identify so closely with Lil Wayne, Lucky?
Lucky: Lil Wayne is just like me; we don't give a fuck. We're gonna live the way we want to live. We don't care what people think of us; we're going to live the way we want to live. We're nothing the same though. When I was a kid, I was abused, I lived in the streets, I was in and out of foster care and juvenile detentions and mental hospitals so as a kid, I wasn't privileged to have a lot of things that a lot of people have. But I lived. If I wanted it, I fought to get it. Those that abused me, I abused them right back.
Why do you think you allowed Laura and her camera so closely, so intensely, into your life?
Lucky: She knew I was going through a lot of pain and stuff like that and I was still angry. Basically you have to trust someone. If I wanted my story to be heard, I had to stop hiding what had happened to me. I'm an adult now, not a child. I was tired of suffering; I was tired of not being heard. I took a leap of faith and decided to give it a try.
Laura: People are so taken with the bond and the relationship and the access that Lucky gave me. I feel, for me, it's very natural. People are so impressed that people from two seemingly different social worlds can bond. Like, why not? I think people are very surprised when they meet me and they want to talk about how brave I am or whether I was afraid, but I think that says something about them and their outlook. This isn't an anthropological feature, an outsider studying a subject, but a woman talking eye-to-eye with another woman. I think a lot of the barriers are broken down in those ways. I hope the film has a very first person, eye-level with Lucky rather than 'let me study this woman'. She's such a personality, she has such a presence that I wanted her to speak for herself. And she felt like a film star too, you know? Lucky; she's really tough, she's not a typical hero, she's certainly not a typical woman that we see onscreen.
What did you want the film to achieve? Conversation? Awareness?
Lucky: What I'm trying to put out is that for those who are going for something, I hope they at least confide in someone. I'm also trying to put out the message to those who walk into people's lives, don't only walk in with your feet, walk in with your heart. If you leave someone that's damaged already, what happens to that person if they commit suicide or die? Do you know how many people have been in my life, in my 31 years of living? I've had so many people be in my life and promise they won't hurt me, and they won't leave me by myself. And then they do. Don't judge a book by its cover. Just because I dress with style and have tattoos or carry myself in a certain way, that's because I don't want people to know the pain I'm going through. You gotta believe in something and we all need someone to believe in us, because life isn't easy. This world is turning cold. I'm really tired of suffering and hurting. I've been through what I've been though and I'll still trying to hold it together. I know a lot of homeless people and every month when I get my cheque, I go and I buy food for the homeless. I know what it is not to eat. I know what is it not to have a roof over your head. I know what it is not to sleep. I know what it is to not have a family.
When you watch yourself in the film, what do you see?
I see someone full of pain and anger and rebellious but I had a lot of reasons to be rebellious. You know, I was very angry and full of pain. Every time I see it, I feel very emotional because how come someone like me, as a young lesbian woman survive all this? I'm looking at her on the screen, which is me, like as many times as I've tried to commit suicide, why am I still alive? It's not like my life is getting any better.
One aspect of film is that Lucky's sexuality isn't particularly discussed. This isn't a 'gay film'. It's a film about a woman who happens to be gay.
Laura: For me, that's very 2014, but onscreen I think it's particularly refreshing that it's not her issue. When a lot of people who want to categorise or peg it as an LGBT film, I didn't really see that. This isn't a coming out story.
Lucky: I'm a lesbian. I don't like dick. I'm 100% lesbian. I grew up, basically, in a lesbian society, everything was lesbianism. The majority of the people that I've known are from West 4th St/ Christopher Street, that's where I slept, ate, shit, did whatever I needed to do, over. So all the people I've known are from the gay society. I've never hung out in the straight society. Every other problem has to do with the straight society…. I don't give a flying fuck, I don't care, I'm still going to be me. Everyone worries about 'he say, she say', 'should I live like this'. I don't give a flying fuck if God says don't be gay. I'm going to live for me because flesh is flesh, blood is blood and he gave me flesh so I can bleed blood so that means I'll live the way I feel comfortable and I'll bleed when it's time for me to die.
How has life changed for you since the film has begun to be screened?
Lucky: You would think things would be getting better but they're getting worse. This is what I've been trying to tell people. People see me in a movie documentary or modeling for magazines and think I must be living all happy and a fabulous lifestyle. No. I'm still going through pain. Living in the streets. Staying at different people's houses. I'm still fighting. I'm still struggling, I got my kids taken away from me permanently until I fight for them back. I still have nobody and no one. I'm still helping the homeless and I'm homeless.
What's your favourite moment in the film?
Laura: There's a few of them. There's a moment when Lucky is with her friend Xstay, who's a pimp, and Lucky is talking about when she dies. I call it the Heaven scene. She's reflecting on life and death and Xstay's like 'Take me to heaven baby'. It's just this moment. Some of the moments with her son. Even this guy in the hallway, who is her neighbour who talks about how Lucky feeds him and how a stranger treats you better than your family. He's just this man in the hallway, so for a while I didn't think it would make it into the film, but in a fleeting way someone can sum everything up so beautifully.
A newly edited version of 'Lucky', featuring a new score by Michael Beharie will be screened as part of the Urban World Film Festival this Saturday, September 20, at 5:30pm at the AMC 34th Street Theater in New York.
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Jerome Corpuz