What's it like to be homeless? Or handicapped? Or a high-flying poker player? Documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks wondered the same thing and his show on MTV, World of Jenks, is answering those questions and more. I spoke with Jenks a little while ago and found out what inspired the 24 year-old's curiosity about the experiences of others.
So, let's start by you telling me a little bit about where you come from and how you got started as a documentary filmmaker.
My Dad worked for the UN so as kid we traveled around a lot. I lived in Nepal and Belgium. I ended up going to college at NYU, before I dropped out. When I started to get into [documentary filmmaking], I was 19 and I was in a dorm at NYU and I wasn't really enjoying it. And while this was going on, my grandfather was living in a nursing home with 300 strangers. [My first film started] as an idea I had [about what would happen] if I embedded self in an assisted living facility. It played at various film festivals and then MTV called and here we are.
But one of the things that differentiates you from other documentary filmmakers is that you're shown as an active character in the story and at least in what I've seen in your episode following the homeless girl in San Francisco, it looks as though at times, you sometimes pass judgment on the situation.
Pass judgment may be a bit strong but in that scenario, [it was different]. I think I consider myself a director first off [but] in terms of being in front of the camera, I'm asking these young people to open up and talk about their lives. For me, it's important to establish a trust level. That enables both of us to be vulnerable because we are both in front of the camera. I ask all questions I would behind the camera but this way I can establish trust.
But you are nonetheless in front of the camera and can alter the course of the storyline, so how do you maintain some sort of separation between you and your subjects?
Yeah, that's one of the more difficult parts. I let the subjects know form the start that his will be a piece about who you are. No one's perfect, so we'll show good and bad and everything in between. But the point of the show is to showcase these unique voices in America that don't normally have an opportunity to be on national TV. That's what makes it worth it and what it is.
What other voices will World of Jenks showcase?
We documentary on a 20 year old with autism and the people within that community have responded really well. Another episode was an animal rescuer, a girl in south Florida about fifteen minutes outside Miami. She would infiltrate these slaughter farms and set free horses that were slaughtered for meat [that would be shipped to Europe]. We did a documentary about a poker player who had this unbelievable lifestyle -- we went to London at one point. It's very sexy in that sense, but then as he opened up he talked about how he's prone to depression and anxiety. He is a real introspective guy [and] I think people are scared to talk about depression and he was a guy who really struggled with it. And to have it on MTV and talk about these issues [facing young people] makes it worth it.
How did you cast these people?
The first part was we wanted to find worlds that were pockets of America that I [felt] weren't being exposed on a national landscape to mainstream young America -- [what it was like to be] a homeless girl, autistic, or a young cage fighter. I would be interested in that world and we would have a research team that would try and find subjects that could showcase that world.
There are 16,000 homeless youth in New York City alone. But either kids didn't want to to do it or they weren't the right voice or had shelter or weren't really homeless. So, I sent a research team to San Francisco with a Flipcam, they interviewed a dozen people and one girl gave an incredible interview for an hour. She had been on the streets for 10 years, which was crazy. We gave her a cell phone [at the end of the episode].
Do you still have contact with the homeless girl?
I talk to her every day.
Is her life getting better?
Slowly, but it's a bumpy ride. She had a job for a little bit, lost it and is back moving around quite a bit. She has a really tough life and is still kind of going through it all. But that's not what the show's about. I'm not a spiritual leader, I'm there to document her life. And I thought she needed to know someone loved her. I could get her a job or money, but I thought it was a larger issue of being loved -- that if she did something stupid, someone would care. That's why I'm paying for her cell phone for the year.
World of Jenks finishes its run in November. What are your larger goals as a filmmaker and how does the experience of creating this show move your own story forward?
Right now we're editing. I'm in three different editing rooms as we talk. But down the line, I want to do what Woody Allen did and be able to write and direct and maybe be a New York guy that can make movies. I love that Woody in his prime was making a movie a year. That's a formula I would love to emulate.
If I go on to scripted features soon, I would want it to be something that speaks to my generation and it does so in a moving and substantive way so people can feel something they haven't felt before and feel that it represents people that are my age. I have scripts that I want to make sooner than later and I'm not-- To be honest, we just finished shooting on Thursday. What's next, I need a few more days to think about [what's next]. In all sincerity the unique chance to do [a show like World of Jenks] on mainstream television doesn't come by every day. I take the job pretty seriously.
World of Jenks airs on MTV at 10:00 PM ET/PT.