Filmmaker, a Marshall grad, puts face on homelessness

By Rusty Marks
Staff writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Filmmaker Bob Wilkinson spent 17 days on the road with street preacher Brandt Russo, eating out of dumpsters and stealing used cooking oil from restaurant trash bins to fuel a bio-diesel powered bus, all to help capture the plight of the homeless on film.

"You live off a lot of crackers and hummus," the 34-year-old independent filmmaker said. "If you look in three dumpsters, you usually find something to eat, but you may not find something you want to eat or that's nutritious.

"It's kind of hit and miss. You get what you get."

But hit and miss is exactly the way that America's homeless population lives, and it's one of the reasons Wilkinson wanted to record their stories on camera.

"Adopt-a-Jesus," Wilkinson's documentary about the trip, will show at West Virginia State University in Institute at 7 p.m. Monday, Marshall University on Tuesday and West Virginia University Parkersburg on Wednesday. For additional screenings, visit www.adoptajesus.com.

Screenings are free, but DVDs are being sold for $15 to help defray production costs.

Marshall University graduate, unofficial promoter, film producer and Wilkinson's wife, Charessa Wilkinson, said 40 screenings of the film already have been scheduled in locations as far-flung as Atlanta and New York.

"We're booked all the way until the end of March now, almost every day," the 33-year-old said.

News of the film has traveled largely by word of mouth, and Charessa is booking screenings at just about any venue that's interested.

"Here in Ripley," she said, "I contacted a tattoo shop."

The Wilkinsons consider themselves Christians, but, like Russo, they stepped away from the organized church to pursue a more grassroots, personal Christianity that stresses direct action over church politics.

Accompanied by Wilkinson, Russo took his cooking-oil-powered bus on the road last summer to help the homeless, record some of their stories and crawl into corners mainstream churches often miss or ignore.

"It opened my eyes to a lot of things, and made me think about things I wouldn't have," Wilkinson said. "It seems to strike a chord with people who watch it."

Wilkinson has shot five 30-minute documentaries for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. "Adopt-a-Jesus" is his second independent film.

He said he was surprised at how hard life on the streets is. "You see someone panhandling for money, and you think, 'What a lazy person that is,' " he said.

He said he and Russo spent much of their time looking for food or oil for the bus. Wilkinson found the experience exhausting, and he knew he would be able to go to a permanent home when the project was over.

"You're constantly working for survival," he said.

Wilkinson concedes that some people might view their actions as not very Christian.

"There's no way around it," he said. "We were stealing.

"It was a survival instinct at that point. In a lot of poverty situations, you have that.

The Christian thing to do would be that the people who have things should give them to the people who need them, rather than throw things away, rather than accuse people of stealing.

"That's a tough one."

Charessa Wilkinson said the couple's seat-of-the-pants approach to shooting and promoting the documentary has paid off. She believes the project is in God's hands. Whenever she needs something, someone pops up to help.

"It's totally a God thing," she said. "One day I needed someone from Canton, Ohio, to come to my house on Dec. 6, pick up Brandt and take him to Ohio," she said. A screening was scheduled in Youngstown on Dec. 7, and Russo's ride had fallen through.

"Wouldn't you know, the next day someone called from Canton wanting to have a screening on the sixth."

Bob and Charessa Wilkinson said the purpose of the film is to open the public's eyes to the real needs of the homeless and to encourage direct action. "That's been at the heart of this from the beginning," Bob Wilkinson said.

He said he has gotten offers from distributors to market the film to a larger audience, but he has declined.

"It becomes an exploitation, rather than a genuine project about changing peoples' minds," he said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustyma...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


Adopt-a-Jesus - a review - showing at WVSU Nov. 30th and Huntington Dec. 1

by Steve Fesenmaier

Bob Wilkinson sent me a preview of his new film about Brandt Russo called “Adopt-a-Jesus.” It truly opened a door in to the world that has been making headlines ever since The Great Recession began - the life of America’s homeless. I recalled that Mr. Russo made a stop in Charleston recently, and I guess that is when Bob decided he was worth making a film about. The film is very well made, with great interviews, editing and most interesting in some ways, the music which was credited at the beginning. It was definitely NOT the usual rock and roll nostalgia used in films these days.

Russo is a person who found himself homeless and decided to do something about it, creating a bus that runs on vegtable oil and has the words “Can’t ignore the Poor” on the white side of the bus. The bus is his mobile kitchen/home, and it shows him for two weeks traveling around Louisiana, Texas and other spots where he endlessly dumpster dives, looking for food he can feed the poor with and get more vegatable oil to run the bus. After watching the entire film, one can almost see how easy it is to do - and how thousands and perhaps one day millions will be doing the same.

He visits places that feed the poor like “Common Grounds” and “Loaves and Fishes.” ( I guess he visited ManaMeal when he was in Charleston.) During the film, there are interviews with a few other people involved in the crusade to feed the homeless, but 90 % of the film shows Russo who presents is simply philosophy of applying Jesus’ statement that “anyone who feeds the poor feeds him.”

I particularly enjoyed the final scene of the film, showing Russo and friends outside the largest church in America with 40,000 members as they actively tell the incoming members about is program. 7 sign up. Like he says, “be the church, not go to church.” He does discuss the misuse of religion in homeless shelters and really focuses on the simply facts of life on the street. He revisits one place where he used to live in LA. It brought tears to my eyes to think of the hell he and millions go through in our criminally capitalistic society every day.

As I have written earlier, the film is being shown in film festivals around North America. The film is being shown locally at several places. Visit the website for dates including Nov. 30th at WVSU Institute and Dec. 1 in Huntington at Marshall U. Maybe the ManaMeal people would like to see it. Maybe the church people of the state would like to see it - and see how one man has become a contemporary Jesus.


Local filmmaker documents plight of homeless; film making a big impact - Ripley, WV - Jackson Newspapers

Local filmmaker documents plight of homeless; film making a big impact - Ripley, WV - Jackson Newspapers

Posted using ShareThis

By Christina Bright
The Jackson Herald
Tue Nov 17, 2009, 11:15 AM EST

Ripley, W.Va. -

Traveling by a bus that ran on cooking oil, eating out of dumpsters when necessary, seeking out those many people try to avoid. It might not sound like an experience many would want, but for local filmmaker Bob Wilkinson, it was all part of a documentary to show the plight of homeless people in the south.

It all started a couple of years ago when The Bridge, an area ministry started by Wilkinson’s wife Charessa, was hosting the Rock in Love Tour. She had invited Brandt Russo to attend and share his story with the young people who attended the multi-town event. Russo had become jaded by the religious establishment and followed the instructions of Jesus: sold his possessions and dedicated himself to helping those less fortunate.

Russo spent a week with the Wilkinsons during that time. “We became really good friends,” Charessa said. “At the time, he was really timid. We helped him make that transition and became like a family for him.”

It was during the Cornerstone Festival, which Charessa called a “hippy Christian music fest,” that Russo said he was not going to allow any more media access or film footage of him. Bob jokingly asked if that meant he couldn’t make a film featuring Russo. But when Russo said he would allow him to, Bob began to take the idea seriously.

After finding a diesel mechanic and military man in Ripley who was willing to help make repairs to the bus emblazoned with the motto “Can’t Ignore the Poor,” Wilkinson and Russo left Jackson County and headed south with no money and no idea what the next two weeks would bring. “I told him I’d go out and live like him,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson has making films since 2000 as a college student and has made a career of it. He has been working for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. He has produced several documentaries including “Rounding Third,” a history of Charleston’s minor league’s Watt Powell Park, and “John Brown’s Body,” a look at the legacy of Brown’s raid in Harper’s Ferry. His first independent documentary was “Shades of Gray,” a portrait of the man behind the Men in Black legend. It was picked up for distribution by Media 8/Trillian Entertainment.

This latest film is called “Adopt-a-Jesus,” named for the project Russo was trying to get off the ground in Houston. The project involved photographing homeless people around the city and encouraging others to “adopt” them – by seeking them out, learning about them, bringing them some food, and other small gestures to show them people care.

Between Ripley and Houston, they stopped in major cities along the way, interviewing homeless people, learning their stories, and feeding them. Wilkinson said he and Russo, accompanied by Jonathan James who photographed their trip, mostly found food stores and restaurants had thrown out – food that was still perfectly good but wasn’t sold. At one point they found 100 boxes of crackers that had been thrown out because the boxes were dented. Those crackers were donated to a local soup kitchen.

They had to rely on the fact people threw out cooking oil to literally fuel their trip. People were reluctant to give them used oil, which meant they had to take what was being discarded. Bob explained the bus ran on diesel until the oil reached a certain temperature and then the conversion would happen automatically. “We made it to Houston on very little money,” he said.

The trip certainly was eye-opening, not only in terms of the conditions of the homeless, but also in terms of how they are treated by everyone, including the church. Often, they would be run off church parking lots where they would park for the night.

Eventually they ended up at Lakewood Church in Houston, home of television evangelist and best-selling author Joel Olsteen. When Russo, with his long hair, piercings, tattoos, and raggedy clothes, walked in and sat down in the front row, he was escorted toward the back where cameras would not film him.

An usher later apologized, saying that he did not feel the same as the other ushers, and neither did Olsteen. The Adopt-a-Jesus project was set up outside the Lakewood Church. However, security guards quickly broke up their demonstration as people walked passed, paying little attention to their pleas for the homeless.

But they did find some positive stories along the way. A stop a Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen was one. Wilkinson said anyone is welcome to eat there regardless of their ability to pay. They also found a family who purchased a former crack house and refurbished it to make a group home.

These are the stories that helped shape the film, one Wilkinson said will cause everyone who sees it to “question your position on things.” Originally set for a 10-day run, it is turning into a five month run across the country. Russo is traveling to be at each screening during this time to help share his story. The film will have a few showings in West Virginia beginning at the end of November.

On November 30, “Adopt-a-Jesus” will be shown at the student union of West Virginia State at 7 p.m. On December 1 Marshall University will show the film in Smith Hall. Several campus groups and departments are joining forces to show the film and hold a coat drive in conjunction.

The film will be shown in Ripley on December 4 at 7 p.m. at Phoenix Rising Tattoo on Main Street.

A trailer for the film can be viewed at YouTube. For more information on screenings, visit adoptajesus.com.


Photos from the "Adopt-A-Jesus" Tour

From Adopt-A-Jesus Screenings

From Adopt-A-Jesus Screenings

From Adopt-A-Jesus Screenings

Opened my eyes to a whole new world..

from Lindsey Hamby's blog...

Before the film Adopt-A-Jesus, when I saw a homeless person on the side of the road I would swerve and just go on my way not thinking how that person could of been feeling that day. I never gave them money because I always thought they would use it for the wrong things. I watched the film Adopt-A-Jesus last night with a group of college students and it changed my way of thinking tremendously. I thought the movie was a great documentary which not only opened my eyes to homelessness but opened my eyes on how we can help the homeless. When I saw the card board cut-outs of homeless people that others can pray for I thought it was a great idea. The film stirred a message in my heart and also in the hearts of many others that I talked to after the movie. The movie took my mind off of me and placed it on a much greater population that I didn’t think of often.

–Lindsey Hamby (Gardner-Webb University, NC)

-to read the rest of Lindsey's Blog Post click on the the title of this post-


"Shades of Gray" a new WV masterpiece

Shades of Gray - a new WV masterpiece
By Steve Fesenmaier

Bob Wilkinson and Robert Tinnell, two of West Virginia's most creative filmmakers have combined forces to make "Shades of Gray," a masterpiece film about one of the state's most interesting personalities since WWII, Gray Barker (1925-84).

Wilkinson is a WVPBS filmmaker who previously had directed a great film about Harpers Ferry called "John Brown's Body." Tinnell is a well-known graphic novelist and filmmaker, best known for his hit graphic novel, "The Feast of Seven Fishes," and a long previous career making films in Hollywood. The film is called "Shades of Gray," a new 55 minute biography that is full of insight and dark humor. Congrats to both for making an accessible and intense film about a man who helped create the contemporary obsession with UFOs and local monsters.

The film includes fascinating interviews with Barker's family and friends, revealing that Barker never really believed in all the amazing things that he wrote about including UFOs, the Flatwoods Monster, Mothman, "Men in Black" (MIB) but apparently enjoyed the invention. He was just a small town man with a very great imagination, and the intelligence and energy to invent worlds that only he could really imagine.

This biography includes clips from two of the Hollywood films that have been made based on Barker's inventions - "The Mothman Prophecy" and "MIB." Both films starred the biggest actors in Hollywood, and the second became such a hit that a sequel was made.

I particularly enjoyed the recreation of Barker writing at his typewriter, showing a lonely character who almost single-handedly invented the world that super-star directors like Spielberg and thousands of others were able to mine for their own creations. Could there have been a hit TV series like "The X-Files" without the work of Barker? Could Spielberg have invented E.T. and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" without "Saucerian" magazine? I doubt it.

There is an earlier film, "Whispers from Space," by Ralph Coon that also profiles Barker. Coon came from L.A. back in the 1980s to explore the life and times of Barker, interviewing some of the same people shown in this film including Merle Moore, the Clarksburg-Harrison County library director who purchased the Barker Collection for her library. (She once called me on a Saturday, asking me to come to town to evaluate the collection. At that time I had no idea who Barker was and declined the invitation. I did work with Coon then, programming the world premiere of the film at the Spring WV International Film Festival, and put Wilkinson and Tinnell together since they both expressed great interest in Barker to me.) This film, unlike Coon's, explores the very dark side of Barker's life including his homosexuality and his possible death from AIDS. Barker was arrested for illegal sexual activities, and as Moore says, being gay in a small town can be dangerous.

This film is for adults, and probably will not be shown in West Virginia grade schools. However, I think that it would be great to show in West Virginia high schools and colleges, studying the vast UFO universe that came from Barker's typewriter.

The film has been shown at the 2008 Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, West Virginia and will be shown in Sutton, Braxton County in early October. Hopefully Barker's family, some of whom still live in Braxton County, will attend the premiere. I hope that there is a Clarksburg showing of the film since David Houchon, the curator of the Barker Collection, is one of the main experts interviewed. Hopefully, the will be shown all over the U.S. and world. The people of West Virginia can be proud of this honest and artistic film about a man who made our universe a whole lot bigger despite having little to work with except his own intelligence and flare for the amazing.