documenting homeless teens in hippie communes

Alice Stein spent two years filming Dirty Kids, a group of “runaways, outcasts, and train-hopping travelers” as they created homes and families deep in the forest.

by Emily Manning
21 August 2015, 3:58pm

Filmmaker Alice Stein first met the Dirty Kids in the parking lot of a Tennessee Walmart in 2012. They'd piled in a turquoise pick-up truck and arrived at the retail giant to stock up on kitchen supplies for a nearby Rainbow Gathering, celebrations in remote woodland areas where hippies have come together since the early 70s to construct temporary countercultural communities. Organized around the tenets of peace, love, and respect, the Rainbow Gatherings also position themselves as utopian alternatives to modern capitalism. There's no electricity, hot water, or communication with anyone from the outside world -- often for months at a time.

While these Gatherings are open to people of all ages and from all walks of life, Alice gravitated towards the tight knit tribes of homeless teens who drift between communes throughout the US. Chain smoking, trash eating, and -- as their self prescribed moniker would suggest -- pretty filthy, many of these Dirty Kids come from broken homes or communities where their differences mark them as outsiders. For them, these are family gatherings.

For two years, Alice lived with the Dirty Kids in the woods, documenting how they found strength and survival in each other. Although in recent years, the Gathering's rainbow spirit has seen its dark clouds, Alice speaks of overwhelmingly positive experiences of unity and acceptance. As she prepares to release her documentary, Dirty Kids, we caught up with the filmmaker to find out more.

What exactly is a 'Dirty Kid'?
Each one will probably give you a different answer. In my experience, they don't follow the system; they're runaways, outcasts, rainbow kids, and train-hopping travellers. They don't necessarily have a place to take a shower all the time, but a Dirty Kid is someone who doesn't really care.

What motivated you to make this film?
I had never heard of a Dirty Kid before, or a rainbow gathering for that matter. When I went to check it out, I was overwhelmed by how many runaway teenagers there were. It felt like a paradise island for lost boys.

How did you find your subjects and why did you choose to follow this particular group? Tell us about a few of them.
We came across this one group in a Walmart parking lot outside of the gathering. They had come to get supplies for their kitchen, which they described as 'sweeter than yo' momma's box.' It seemed like the perfect moment to approach them. The main kids in the group were Nitrous and M, Jude, Fawn, Shallows, Delay and Mario. Nitrous describes herself as a 'reincarnation of Cleopatra' - she and M met and got married at the Gathering while dosed off their faces on LSD. I first met Jude when he was 17 and have been filming with him on-and-off over those three years. Jude grew up in Florida living in the woods; he's a true rainbow at heart. His passion for the family was really inspiring. It kept me and others going for most of the journey.

What sorts of issues are these kids dealing with?
All kinds. I can't speak for all of them, but the ones I met came from broken backgrounds or had complicated relationships with their parents - many in which alcohol, drugs and prison were involved.

Tell us about the Rainbow Gathering.
I shouldn't really, you should just go and experience it for yourself!

I've read it described elsewhere as a utopia. Is it really all it's cracked up to be?
It's pretty amazing; going there can really change you as a person. The Gathering is an amazing support system for so many people, a lot of whom are travelling or homeless. People build their own kitchens and feed up to 10,000 others three meals every day. There are rules but just like the outside world, not everybody follows them.

How were minority populations like women or people of color treated?
Everyone is treated equally. The Gathering is one of the few places in the world where you are accepted as a human being and nothing else.

Gatherings host many thousands of peaceful attendees, but recently, there was a highly publicized stabbing. How did that violence affect the kids you travelled with?
The stabbing was obviously really unfortunate as it was posted all over local papers - people were told to stay inside their homes and away from the Gathering. I remember it really upset the kids I was traveling with as it obviously sheds such a bad light on the family. Generally, they already feel misunderstood by society. Most of the violence occurs when alcohol is involved, which is strictly not permitted in the Gathering -- for these reasons -- except for A-Camp, which is slightly out of the way and which most people try to stay away from.

You followed your subjects for two years. What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects?
The first few days of filming in the woods were some of the most challenging. People were pretty skeptical at first; it took a lot of explaining to a lot of people that I wasn't working for the government. But the relationships I made with the people I met was definitely the most rewarding aspect. The fact they let me film with them felt like a privilege.

What do you think are some of the biggest issues or challenges today's young people --especially these kids -- face as they grow up?
There are a lot of issues that kids that are pissed off with these days, especially in the States. But the main issue they seemed to have was acceptance. Many of them came from small towns with narrow minded views on sex, race, and religion - where you were considered an outcast for being different.

What do you hope people take from this film?
I really loved and have a huge amount of respect for everyone I filmed with. I'm hoping others will feel that, too.

For more information about the film -- which Alice plans to release later this year -- visit here


Text Emily Manning
Photography Alice Stein

Rainbow Gatherings
Dirty Kids
Alice Stein