Men in Trees
Documentary about Seattle's housing crisis screens at film festival
Kevin Heutink never set out to make the documentary “Out on a Limb,” which plays at STIFF (Seattle’s True Independent Film Festival) on Tuesday, May 8.
Then he saw Dave the Squirrelman.
A freelance videographer, Heutink, 36, spotted someone building a tree house across from his workplace on Eastlake Avenue in March 2008. He set up a camera and filmed David “Squirrelman” Csaky, a homeless man, hauling materials 30 feet above the ground. Heutink thought he’d make a nice film about a Seattle man living in a tree house.
He ended up weaving together stories of three people facing homelessness.
Not everyone looked on the structure with fondness. Several weeks after Heutink started his shoot, the city of Seattle sent Csaky an eviction notice. It granted him 48 hours to vacate the tree, a deadline that was extended for 10 days. “So where I had been filming him building,” said Heutink, “I was now filming him tearing it down.”
Csaky’s eviction became news, thanks in part to a photographer from the Seattle P-I who lived across the street from the tree house. The eviction also shifted the focus of the film as Heutink found himself confronting a question: “What does it take for someone to actually get out of homelessness?”
In his search for an answer, Heutink realized following more subjects would lend the documentary greater depth. He enlisted the help of Real Change vendor James French, who sold the paper in Belltown and slept in the doorway of a nearby business. Then Heutink encountered Pete Nelson.
Nelson, a builder of tree houses and author of several coffeetable books on the structures, took pictures of Squirrelman’s nest for a new book. But as Nelson photographed one homeless man’s plight of losing his tree house, Nelson confronted his own housing crisis: His home faced foreclosure.
Heutink spent two years following Csaky, French and Nelson, recording their experiences for the documentary. While Csaky’s aboveground eviction brought him short-lived national fame, locally it earned him some neighborly good will. Someone who lived near his tree house sold Csaky an rv for a penny. According to Heutink, Csaky now lives in Mount Vernon. French continues to sell Real Change; he currently lives in an rv and parks in sodo. Nelson rents a house near his foreclosed home.
With two years’ filming complete, Heutink spent another 18 months in postproduction. Grants he earned from the local cultural services agency 4Culture and the city’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs required free screenings. The film premiered in December at the Northwest Film Forum, an event sponsored by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. Another free screening followed in Wallingford. Each of those screenings, he said, led to heartfelt audience discussions.
Heutink hopes for the same when “Out on a Limb” plays at STIFF. He said that even though it wasn’t his intention to delve into the topic of homelessness on film, he’s humbled he created a work that has resonance: “I found a way to weave their experiences into a bigger story that talks about these economic times.”
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.