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American Vagabond

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American Vagabond is a documentary film about runaway queer youth living in the shadows of the promised city.

James ran away from his parents’ home because they didn’t accept that he is gay. He tries to find refuge in San Francisco with his boyfriend, Tyler. They thought they would find a community in the world’s gay Mecca. Instead, they end up sleeping in a park and panhandling in the city’s gay neighborhood. They find themselves stranded in a world of homeless people and the community of other kicked-out queer youth.

Eventually, James has to face his past and the place he has left behind.

American Vagabond is a coming of age story of a gay boy growing up in small town America. It’s a story about a family coming to grips with what it fears the most.

DURATION: 85 min

LOCATIONS: San Francisco, Chico


FUNDED BY: SES, YLE, AVEK, DFI, DR, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Eurimages, MEDIA Programme



DIRECTOR: Susanna Helke


CINEMATOGRAPHER: Susanna Helke, Marko Luukkonen

EDITOR: Niels Pagh Andersen

SOUND DESIGN: Olli Huhtanen

MUSIC: Samuli Kosminen

PRODUCERS: Stefan Frost and Henrik Underbjerg (Radiator Film)

CO-PRODUCERS: Cilla Werning (For Real Productions)


Director Susanna Helke

Susanna Helke is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and professor based in Helsinki, Finland. Her films have been featured in the most im- portant international documentary film festivals, such as IDFA, Hotdocs and Visions du Re?el. Her work has received several awards and nominations: including the nomination for the Euro- pean Film Academy Arte award for Best Documentary; the Best Scandinavian Documentary Award; and the Best Doc- umentary Film in the Finnish Academy Awards.

Her films are poetic reflections of the transcendence found in everyday moments in the lives of ordinary people. The films play with the bor- ders of documentary and fiction, observational and reenacted docu- mentary.



When I was visiting San Francisco for the first time, someone told me that there were shelters intended especially for young lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans- gender youth living on the streets. The concept puz- zled me. Why, in America’s gay Mecca, were young queers living in shelters?

Years later, I moved to the city after having met my girlfriend. The district we lived in bordered the Cas- tro, San Francisco’s celebrated gay neighborhood. I frequently walked beneath the rainbow flag flying in the middle of Harvey Milk Square. The Diesel Store for men only, located in the same square, was like a sanctuary celebrating the male body.

Every day there were grimy and tired young people sitting with their hand-scribbled cardboard signs in front of Starbucks or Walgreen’s. The same doll-faced boy was always at the corner in front of the bank, beg- ging for money with a pink teddy bear tucked under his arm. In this fashionable neighborhood of well-to-do gay men, these shaggy elves were like foul-smelling apparitions.

A survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition for Homelessness, pub- lished in 2007, revealed the epidemic nature of home-

lessness among young queers in the United States. Twenty to forty percent of homeless youth living in big cities belong to sexual minorities. The homophobia
of family members or foster care parents is the main reason they leave home. Teens are coming out at younger ages but many of them end up in a conflict with their families. They run away to big cities to seek the support of the gay community.

The one essential American and global civil rights struggle of the 21st century is the fight for the rights
of sexual minorities. The “marriage war” has re-politi- cized not only the queer movement but also the whole issue of homosexuality. The ice is rapidly melting as state after state legalizes same-sex marriage, but whenever a change happens it causes recoil.

The homeless queer youth do not participate in gay marriage marches, and they don’t campaign for their societal rights. They have no society. They have been twice abandoned. They have fled their families or their families have discarded them. They have come to their own people in the promised city, but their people do not welcome them cluttering their streets. Partic- ularly not now, as they fervently strive to take their place at the table with “normal” middle-class America.When one is living in a place like the liberal Bay Area, it is easy to forget that being gay is still not “cool” in so many communities and places in this world. The illusion of the post-gay world remains the privilege of a few.

I wanted to make a film, which, in a poetic manner, would reflect the issue of homelessness among queer youth. I wanted to show the romantic icon of

a gay vagabond in a new light. After getting to know James and Tyler, and eventually after getting to know James’s family, the story of the film took it’s own course. I wasn’t just dealing with “the issue” anymore. I had to learn once again how reality is always much more nuanced and complicated than political rhetoric.

Susanna Helke,

the director of American Vagabond in Helsinki January of 2013



JAMES is a tall and big-eared boy from Chico, Cali- fornia. He ran away from home after his father found out he was dating TYLER. They come to San Francis- co to try their luck but end up sleeping in a park. The boys call themselves “high class homeless” as they drag a laptop and two tennis rackets in their small dingy carry-on suitcase. Their All American Boy look with baseball caps and hooded jackets make them look out of place among the grungy street kids of San Francisco.

James is the dynamo of the couple, cracking jokes and keeping their spirits up. His surface, full of jovial humor, conceals the darker shadows in this young

man’s soul. This is not the first time James has run away from home. His problems with his family started when he fell in love with another boy for the first time.

“I didn’t ever want to have a shopping cart. Real homeless people have shopping carts and that was just too hard core.” —James

James is frequently in contact with his mother, SANDY, by payphone. Anger, longing and feelings of abandonment are raging inside of him.

Through Sandy, the film gives a face and heart to an “ordinary” mother from conservative America.

She has always been close to her son, but James’ teen years brought shock and confusion when she discovered James is gay. Since then, she has been torn between her beliefs and her instincts as a mother.

“We couldn’t believe our son looked at another man as a woman. This was not natural for us. To us it was like a disease or deficiency. Something that doesn’t happen to your family.” —Sandy

James’s father, JIM, is a quiet man with a white pick- up truck who just wanted a son who could go hunting with him. It is his father’s acceptance that James is longing for the most, after all.



James and Tyler get to know the community of queer youth living on the streets of San Francisco. KEL- LIE, ANGEL, SOLLUNA, VANESSA, SKYY, SONYA among many others, are those young people that have come to try their luck in San Francisco.

Watch clip of the film:

© For Real Productions & Radiator Film 2013

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