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Originally published Tuesday, December 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Great Speeches From a Dying World": Filmmaker brings dignity to the homeless

"Great Speeches From a Dying World" features Seattle's homeless, but it is not a treatise on homelessness, says filmmaker Linas Phillips.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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"Great Speeches From a Dying World"

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Director Linas Phillips' documentary features homeless Seattleites. But "Great Speeches From a Dying World" is not a treatise on the state of homelessness, its filmmaker says.

He followed people who are usually ignored to help shed light on their lives and struggles — including addiction and love.

If there's a statement, it's an anti-war, political one about how the government spends its money abroad while serious problems remain at home, he says.

The documentary is the 32-year-old director's second, and was inspired by his first, "Walking to Werner." In that film, Phillips walked from Seattle to L.A. to meet his idol, director Werner Herzog. Phillips met several transients during the trip, and it piqued his curiosity.

"I want to try to tell stories that have not yet been told, show the people that aren't very seen," he says. He also had homeless people he followed recite great speeches written by Chief Sealth, Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and others.

We spoke by phone to Phillips, who recently moved from Seattle to New York. He is working on his first narrative film.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your film?

A: I was interested in speeches, and I thought it would show [the speakers] in a dignified way. I'm not interested in documentary films that are just the facts. I believe that's impossible and kind of naive. I chose to be even more naive and try to put my own conceptual idea and put things that are fake within the nonfiction and try to get a greater truth, just show something more unique.

Q: You worked with them on their speech performance, and it's remarkable to watch how natural they are. What was that process like?

A: The great thing about making them do the speeches is I got to know them better. We had this task. I think they respected me more because I had this thought they could do these speeches. Some of them could barely read through it when we first started to rehearse. It's hard to imagine they wouldn't feel a little bit proud about having done it after saying, "I can't do it at all."

Q: Were you ever concerned they weren't telling you the truth about their lives?

A: I don't think they were all accurate. I think there's embellishment there. The most extreme example is Sarge. At times, I doubt whether he was in Vietnam. I don't really do fact checking. Is it true? Or is it just true this guy said that and he's out there? There's still a truth in the fact that he's sleeping outside, he doesn't really know how to get help because of his mental disorder. It doesn't matter if it happens from a gunshot or if he's just like that.

Q: You end on an uplifting moment. (Spoilert alert). Tomey Smith, your main subject, gets a dog. After spending a lot of time on struggles including addiction, were you trying to make a point?

A: Just that Tomey got a dog, and it's beautiful. I love the ending.

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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