WINCHESTER — When 10 local motorcyclists rode cross-country last year to raise awareness about homelessness in America, they were joined by a film crew that shot footage for what they hoped would become a feature-length documentary.
They returned with 120 hours of footage, but no financing to edit and distribute it.
Winchester Rescue Mission Executive Director Brandan Thomas, who first conceived the idea for what became known as the Rescue Ride, is hoping that people in the Northern Shenandoah Valley can contribute the cash needed to produce “American Rescue,” which he envisions as an 85-minute movie that could be sold to a streaming or broadcast service like Netflix, Hulu or HBO.
So far, “American Rescue” exists only as a 4-minute trailer with scenes from the 14 cities the riders visited during their 14-day journey that began on Sept. 27 in Winchester and ended on Oct. 10 in Los Angeles.
Thomas said the trailer was created to entice people to donate the $100,000 to $200,000 needed to produce the full-length documentary.
On Friday, the “American Rescue” trailer debuted at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Winchester. The invitation-only event also featured guest speakers and five bonus scenes that were produced exclusively for the approximately 100 people in attendance.
“This whole idea was hatched right here in this building about a year ago,” Thomas told the audience at the Alamo.
He was referring to the local theater’s Lost Weekend film festival in March, which included a screening of a movie called “The Public” that was written and directed by Emilio Estevez, who also starred in the drama.
“The Public” tells the story of homeless people seeking shelter in a public library, and Estevez came to Winchester to promote the movie. During his time here, Thomas told Estevez about his “crazy idea” that eventually became the Rescue Ride.
“Emilio Estevez said, ‘That sounds like a great idea,’” Thomas said on Friday.
Six months later, Thomas and the Winchester Rescue Mission had received enough contributions to fully fund the $24,000 journey, so the 10 riders headed out to learn how other cities across the nation — Roanoke; Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Fort Smith and Fayetteville, Arkansas; Bartlesville, Oklahoma; Wichita and Colby, Kansas; Denver; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona; Las Vegas and Los Angeles — were addressing homelessness in their communities.
By the time the trip was over, Thomas and his fellow Rescue Riders — Jay Smith, Sarah Williams, Andre Fontaine, Richard Hawkins, David Calhoun Jr. and Richard “Woody” Woodruff of Winchester, Jeff Horton of Manassas, Mike McDonald of Woodbridge, and Jeremy Lundy of Inwood, W.Va. — had raised about $75,000, enough to add a mental health specialist to the staff of Winchester Rescue Mission at 435 N. Cameron St.
Thomas believes the impact of the “American Rescue” documentary could be even more profound than the Rescue Ride itself, bringing awareness to the fact that approximately 568,000 people in the United States — the majority of them with untreated mental illnesses — are currently homeless.
Smith, who served as road captain for the Rescue Ride, is a financial adviser in Winchester who had never before seen the extent of America’s homeless crisis.
“It really was a life-changing trip for me and, I think, many others,” he said on Friday. “The real dichotomy for me ... was seeing God’s beautiful nature by day, and then pulling into a mission at night and seeing man’s inhumanity to man.”
“These people have been out there so long, believing that they’re hopeless and they’re worthless and nothing but an addict. We have to change their thinking,” said Williams, the only female Rescue Rider. “Once we reinforce that [change] in their heads, they can get better.”
Thomas told Friday’s audience that a major corporation, which he would not name, has already agreed to fully finance the “American Rescue” documentary, but with a catch.
“They want to kind of rip out all the guts of everything we’re saying and do a lot of re-filming to change the structure and the pace of the whole thing,” he said. “I know there is a way for us to partner together to do this here and not change what we feel like needs to be said [about homelessness].”
A website, rescue-ride.org, has been launched so people can watch the 4-minute “American Rescue” trailer, learn more about the national homeless crisis and make donations to support the production and release of a full-length documentary about the Rescue Ride.
“I really hope we get to share this with the world,” Williams said. “We need to help these people be more hopeful.”