Leah Nichols first met Steve Jones at a sidewalk memorial for a mutual and recently departed friend. She was in tears. He wasn’t.
“Buck up,” Jones advised.
A year and a half later, she’s made a 10-minute stop-motion animated film about Jones that premieres Wednesday at the Urban Film Festival.
Jones, it turns out, is funny, personable and knows everyone — much like Fred, their mutual friend, who was a fixture on Capp Street for many years. She has seen him, but they never spoke.
“And that was kind of the wild part,” she said. “It takes a mutual acquaintance or someone to break the ice, because I don’t think I would have given him the time of day if I hadn’t first known Fred.”
On the lookout for a new project, Nichols decided to film Jones, a resident of the city for some 40 years, who has lived on and off the street, writing poetry, talking philosophy and making people laugh. The film uses the 73 Questions format favored by Vogue to profile celebrities.
The rapid-fire question-and-answer format, which Nichols picked because of her own interest in celebrity interviews, has a tendency to make people who seem unapproachable a little more relatable. That applies to strangers on the street in a similar way, but the animation adds a layer of whimsy.
Jones, though currently housed in an SRO hotel in SoMa, has been homeless before and considers Capp Street his “front yard.” But the film isn’t about that.
“I wanted to really get away from the National Geographic hyperreal representation of people on the street,” Nichols said. Not every story about someone in an uncomfortable situation has to focus on that, or be utterly serious, she said.
There is a moment, though not necessarily serious, where the animation gives way to footage of Jones reading his poetry. Until then, through most of the film, Jones’ age, race and what his clothes look like are ambiguous.
“I think all those visual cues in real life can allow you to jump to conclusions,” Nichols said. “I wanted people to suspend those, but at the end bring it back to reality, so he does look like someone on the street.”
Nichols said the film was a collaboration, she and incorporated feedback from Jones over multiple edits, but on their initial walk from Jones’ hotel on 6th Street to Capp Street, people seemed to assume there was something exploitative about their relationship.
“A few passersby stopped me and yelled at me, thinking I was filming him without his permission. They thought I was invading his privacy,” she said. “I think it speaks to their assumptions about who can interact, let alone be friends, and was also a humbling experience.
“It’s kind of its own little social experiment.”
A similar assumption crystallized when Nichols screened the film on Capp Street for neighbors.
“Someone asked, ‘so are you encouraging people to talk to other people on the street?’” Nichols said. “I understand where the person’s coming from, but also with this one … we were connected through a mutual friend. If you see everyone on the street as the same group of people it’s kind of perpetuating this idea that there’s categories, labels essentially.”
Another person, she said, gave Jones money at the screening, which evoked some mixed feelings from him.
The point, Nichols said, is not to evoke pity or guilt trip anyone.
Instead, the result is a warm and gently humorous portrait of a neighborhood character. A person who, though he told Nichols to buck up a year and a half ago when they met, was clearly moved by the piece. Every time he’s seen it, Nichols said, Jones tears up.
73 Questions screens as part of a compendium called “Nurturing the Media Activist Ecosystem of Citizen Journalists, Mainstream Media, and Policy-Makers” at the Ninth Street independent Film Center at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 15.