Craig Mitchell is a Judge in the Supreme Court of Los Angeles, a job which requires him to send criminals, often young and under-privileged gang members, to jail for life. As the film opens, he sentences a young man to 70 years in jail, causing the defendant to break down in tears, asking the question of what it must be like to be a person who regularly commits the rest of a person’s life to incarceration. Mitchell’s answer is that he would be inhuman not to feel something of regret in the decisions which shape another’s life. After being invited down to The Midnight Mission, a local homeless shelter, by a man recently released from jail after being convicted by Mitchell himself, Mitchell decides to start a running club for the members of the hostel. Skid Row Marathon documents this running club; the daily 5:30am starts, the training for marathons and subsequent trips abroad to compete in international runs in Ghana and Rome.
The story concentrates on four of the running group; Rafael, a man who spent 29 years in jail for murder; Ben, a bass player and ex-member of a signed metal outfit; Rebecca, an ex-heroin addict with a small child and David, a serial offender and ex-addict turned artist. These four make up a very sobering collection of stories of how quickly life can fall apart. Rafael’s is a common tale of gangland upbringing, but Ben was on the brink of musical success working with big name producers after his band had upped sticks to LA to make the big time. Rebecca was just a normal girl with the average life and family who slipped into recreational drug abuse. All of them ended up homeless, living on the streets of LA, dossing down in rat-infested holes in the side of flood channels, yet their common trait of ending up in The Midnight Mission changed their lives completely. It sometimes feels a little frustrating that the details of their life before homelessness is only touched on in many places. We find out almost nothing about David and you long for some detail of Ben’s band days, but for better or worse the Hayes made the call to concentrate on the recovery and restoration into civilisation.
What we see in the four characters is enough to put any of us to shame; the commitment to kick their habits, exorcise their demons and create a whole new life, whether it be as a mother, an artist or composer, while living in a two by two-metre square living accommodation is beyond inspiring. To observe people who have lost everything commit to a regime of fitness and personal and academic advancement when most of us struggle to get our arses down the gym after work is stirring. Rafael, who dedicates his entire life to charity, children and families of inmates is especially worthy of mention. Mitchell too is a wonderful example of someone who seems to have action-based empathy beyond conceivable human limits, and this is a fine decoration of his efforts.
Skid Row Marathon does unfortunately fall into the trap of many documentaries about inspiration over adversity however, that when soaking an audience in the great personal and group feats of its protagonists, the inspiration can become somewhat numbing. Whether the Hayes decided to concentrate fully on the runners who came through the other side successfully is unknown but at no point do they stray from the line of redemption. As happy as that makes you as a human, it can make for a relatively linear narrative. We do see a touch of Mody, a Senegalese immigrant and promising ex-high school student who unfortunately relapses after successfully opening a luggage store, but he disappears altogether from the story once his relapse has occurred and no credits suggest his current whereabouts.
Skid Row Marathon is a wonderful story about some truly exceptional people, and for that alone it should be applauded. If at times frustration creeps in over lack of detail or subsequent character arcs, the inevitable gladness it brings to your heart are enough to make up for it.
Dir: Gabriele Hayes, Mark Hayes
Cast: Craig Mitchell, Ben Shirley, Rafael Cabera, David Askew, Rebecca Hayes
Prd: Tchavdar Georgiev, Kim Planert, Tobias Keuthen
DOP: Mark Hayes, James Stolz
Music: Kim Planert
Country: USA, Ghana, Italy
Run Time: 85 minutes
Skid Row Marathon is back in cinemas on 18th June.
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