‘Craigslist Joe’ is an eye-opening documentary

Joseph Garner meets people across the country in 'Craigslist Joe'
Joseph Garner meets people across the country in ‘Craigslist Joe’

Craigslist Joe is a new documentary film from first-time director Joseph Garner.  His idea was to explore a somewhat complex and yet simple at heart question.  Is the spirit of community gone from America?  Was it beaten out of its people by continued economic setbacks and an increasingly isolated, yet connected society thanks to social media?

The basic idea seems simple enough.  Leave everything good in your life, friends, family, money, shelter and work behind.  Go off on an adventure with just the clothes on your back, a laptop, a cellphone and a toothbrush.  Oh yes, and a cameraman to record everything that happens during your 31 day journey in December.  Oh, and the cellphone is a new one, with a completely empty contact list.

Everything Joe needs in life will come to him, or not, from Craigslist.  For anyone who is so sheltered they aren’t aware of what Craigslist is, it’s a website started by an ordinary man from San Francisco to allow people to connect.  Through events, jobs, personal ads, discussion forums and the offerings have grown incredibly since its humble beginnings.  Joe’s plan was to get food, shelter and anything else he needed from this site, along with trying to connect with people and see if he could foster a sense of shared community and experiences.

It’s an interesting journey.  Without giving away all the details, the viewer will watch Joe criss-cross the country, West to East and North to South.  His journey begins on December 1st and the plan is for him to arrive back at home for a party on New Year’s Eve, thrown to celebrate his return by family and friends.

It’s important to take note of something before examining the film and Joe’s journey.  As he admitted in an interview with Tail Slate, the difference between his experience and what a truly homeless person experiences is that he always had an out.  He could have phoned a friend or family member and been home within hours, if he’d found what he was doing to be too much.  But he was committed to seeing the project through and he never considered bailing out.  That in and of itself is worthy of recognition.

Joseph Garner is 'Craigslist Joe'
Joseph Garner is ‘Craigslist Joe’

The best part of Craigslist Joe is the people he meets on his journey.  They are vastly different in so many ways and yet all share one thing in common: A willingness to use social media to not just interact, but to make connections and share what they have.  Many of them were going on drives and just wanted someone to ride with them, to talk to.

Some stand out more than others:

– Daisy, from Chicago, isn’t just a corporate employee with whom Joe shared a breakdancing class.  She opened up her home to Joe and he found out that she is also a dominatrix, exposing a subset of culture he’d been relatively unaware of before he met her.

– John, an artist from New Orleans, is committed to making a change in his city and the lives of the residents still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

– Mohammed, from Seattle, spends his time tutoring the less fortunate and trying to improve their lot in life.

– Fran, from New York City, was an actress who is handling aging and illness with a dignity others might not muster in similar straits.

Documentary films have a problem in that when people are first exposed to the camera they have a tendency to perform, rather than just be.  As Joe spent more time with some of these people, they stop performing and just live their life in front of the lens and those are the best moments of this film.  Those, and the realizations by Joe that living this way is not easy, and that sometimes giving back can be more rewarding than just receiving.

The moments I wanted to see that aren’t on screen are those moments when people weren’t willing to share what they have with a stranger they encounter through Craigslist.  Joe said that for every person that said “yes” to sharing a ride, food, shelter, whatever, with him, there were 200 that said “no.” Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, perhaps it’s very accurate.  But I would have liked to have seen at least one or two of those encounters that did not go well for Joe.  In seeing only all or part of those who said “yes,” we may have missed something.  Maybe we’ll get that in the DVD extras.

That’s intended to be a very minor criticism, for the overwhelming majority of Craigslist Joe worked and worked well.  I don’t recommend that everyone take the journey themselves, as the idea of hundreds or thousands suddenly doing what Joe did might well overwhelm the abilities of Craigslist’s users to provide.  Fortunately, there is no need for them to make the journey.  They can watch this excellent film instead.

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