Film: What happens to the homeless when they die?
‘The Potter’s Field’ explores a group of high school students who hold funerals for the homeless
The fifth annual Flyover Film Festival takes off at the Clifton Center tonight with a world premiere of “The Potter’s Field,” one of the most fascinating — and local — films in the bunch. Louisville native Edward Heavrin documents a group of high school students who hold funeral services for the homeless. The film also explores how large cities like New York and Chicago typically dispose of their less fortunate. LEO caught up with Heavrin to discuss his film.
LEO: How long have you been a filmmaker?
Edward Heavrin: Before the concept of “The Potter’s Field” was born, I was not a filmmaker. In fact, I had no intention of ever becoming one. Then I heard the story of students giving funeral services for the homeless, and I knew this was a story that had to be captured. I didn’t know any filmmakers at the time, so I quickly realized that if this story was going to be told, I was going to have to be the one to tell it. What I thought would only take a couple of weeks ended up taking three years.
LEO: How did you find these students?
EH: The group of high school students participating in the indigent burial program is several hundred deep and spans seven schools. The three main schools are Trinity, Assumption and St. X — where the program originated. Every year the schools have a signup in order for students to join the rotation of volunteers to attend the burials. Some of the schools allowed (me) more freedom to film than others, so I had to turn my focus to the schools that allowed the most access.
LEO: How long did you follow the kids?
EH: I documented the students and teachers on and off for over two years and attended approximately 30 funerals. Because the rotation of students participating is vast, I decided to treat all of the students as one “character” in the film as opposed to individual portraits of each student.
LEO: What surprised you the most while making this film?
EH: I was most surprised by the amount of kind and compassionate folks, both students and adults, who live in Louisville. Unfortunately, the documentary itself is only a small representation of the incredible stories I came across. Not only do the students attend every burial service, there’s a student from Assumption who over the past three years has made flower arrangements for each burial using flowers donated from a local florist. Another student used the money her parents would normally buy her Christmas presents with to purchase a grave marker for a man she had buried the previous week. Then there’s the story of a Middletown businessman who found a homeless gentleman living in the cellar of his business, but instead of kicking him out, he said, “You can stay here under one condition: You allow us to fix the cellar up so it’s more inhabitable.” The homeless man lived there for the last 10 years of his life.
LEO: What drives these kids to volunteer for such a selfless activity?
EH: I don’t think the students are any different from your typical high-schoolers. In my opinion, the difference comes from the educators who are giving the students the opportunity to have a unique experience outside the walls of the classroom. Even if the students can’t fully comprehend the kind of impact attending these funerals is having on them, it doesn’t matter. They are having an experience far more profound than reading statistics about homelessness from the comfort of a classroom desk.
LEO: What do you hope people walk away with after seeing your film?
EH: I’m not here to advocate or preach. The actions of the students inspired me to spend three years trying to tell their story, and it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life. I think compassion is contagious, and I’d be happy if the film moved some folks in the same way the students have inspired me.