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Interview With Shanks Rajendran, Filmmaker Behind the “Los Scandalous” Skid Row Documentary

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Shanks Rajendran is an Australian filmmaker who has made waves in the United States for his searing look at forgotten and ignored areas within big cities. His first documentary here, Liberty City: Miami explored South Florida's toughest neighborhood from the inside, and was hailed as raw and searing by online reviewers. Now he's come to Los Angeles to bring the same outsider-yet-insider point of view to our most deprived part of town- Skid Row.

What brought you to skid row?

When I first came to Los Angeles for a holiday two years ago I was sight seeing. I went to Rodeo Drive, the Hollywood Hills, Staples Center and then my friend said: “Look I know you love doing documentaries so I want you to see something.”

Two blocks down he drove and there it was.  Something I’ve never heard of or seen.  SKID ROW. It was night time so there were just tents and tents and more tents. I saw people hanging around…saw a fight, saw a fire truck pulling someone out of a public bathroom, all that stuff. It was all happening right before my eyes within the period of a good 15-20 minutes.

Coming fresh from a place like Melbourne, Australia – I’ve never seen anything like this. It was one of the most confusing moments in my life... I remember asking myself  “What is this?”

As a documentarian, I live and breathe issues concerning poverty, deprivation and failures. At that point, I knew Skid Row was something I wanted to look into.

What exactly happened on your first night? 

I was confronted on 5th and Maple. I was told by many not to go there myself so I halfway kinda took their advice. Drove there and tried to film from inside the car. It was probably not a smart decision… one hand on the steering wheel and another on the camera isn’t ideal…especially for filming this type of work… regardless,.. It was exciting, slightly embarrassing but nether less entertaining I guess. Though in all seriousness I must thank Lavell aka Push Off (the man you see in the video wearing white) he helped me get out of that situation.

How did your experience in Miami (Liberty City) prepare you for LA? What similarities do you see in the two cities?

In all honesty Liberty City (Miami) people are more welcoming, friendly and love the camera. Don’t get me wrong, we still hear and see gruesome shootouts in Liberty City infamously replayed 1000 times by The First 48 but Skid Row to me is on a whole another level. Though, I must say just like every “hood” some of the usual motives still linger like drugs, prostitution, gangs, police corruption etc. Skid Row is a heaven for those who want just that.

How do you compare Australia to the United States in general?

I love the United States. There is no place like the United States. Australia is a beautiful country, good healthcare and education system that helps those who are hungry for a better life.

That being said, the United States is the place to be. Those who have never been outside of the USA should know that every country tries to emulate and copy the way Americans think, dress and act.

I love the USA for the opportunities and freedom it provides. #teamusa. It’s a shame that Skid Row still exists in the way that it does in 2014 especially in the greatest country in the world, America. I’m not saying this documentary is going to fix all the problems in Skid Row, what I’m saying is this documentary shows all the definite problems in Skid Row.

How did you establish the trust of drug dealers and other street entrepreneurs that you portray in the film?

Like they say here in the USA – I kept it 100.

I remember watching two documentaries on Skid Row.  They were feel good documentaries. To me it’s too repetitive and felt “corporate.” I don’t want to offend anyone but to me it was fake. Let’s cut the crap and address the real problems in Skid Row. I wanted the REAL TRUTH and wanted to show and see the REALITY.

So that’s exactly what I told them. Give me the truth. I remember clearly saying: “Lets show the world your situation so kids growing up make a better decision in life.” They liked it. So really once they realized I wasn’t an undercover cop, they trusted me. One could say, these scoundrels don’t deserve a voice... but that’s another issue altogether.

But I do wonder: Why should anyone deny a person their voice?

One major theme of the documentary seems to be the use of illicit drugs for self-medication. What ailments would you say the residents of Skid Row are suffering from, and what are the most common drugs of choice? 

People from all across the United States come to Skid Row for a fun time. By fun time I mean self-medication fun. It’s like spring break for a lot of them.  Especially the first of the month. Some users sleep in their tent, get a free hot shower, free food and spend their monthly check on drugs.

Then there’s those who desperately need it to stay stable, some are veterans with psychological problems and some are those who need it in order to function.

Drug dealers are saying we are here to keep the streets sane by providing drugs to those who don’t have a prescription.

I’m not going to elaborate more on this because I want everyone to watch the documentary but the most appalling thing I’ve seen is someone setup a stall made out of a cardboard box filled with crack pipes, right outside the mission during peak traffic.

Why isn’t the mission stopping this?

What about the police?

Crack pipes!

There are too many enablers in skid row. Some people want to stay clean but if you’re weak and you have certain triggers that make you relapse, you’re a done deal. It’s a mental health issue.

Common Drugs = Daily Budget = Crystal Meth, Crack and Heroine.

Some will say your documentary is exploitative, how do you respond? Others will say you are just presenting one side of the community there, how do you respond?

I have received nothing but good, positive reception so far. This angle needs to be presented to the public in order to understand the system they are living in.

Yes one could say, Skid Row has improved since back in the day, how ever many years ago, but it’s still a HUGE PROBLEM. There is no denying that.

Those who say my documentary is exploitative are the biggest morons known to mankind. That would put me in the same category as News Channels, HBO, National Geographic, PBS and the list goes on?

I provide a service to the public. I’ve seen the problems and spent one year and a bit documenting these problems to raise awareness. My main objective in Los Scandalous – Skid Row is to give the subject – the people, the place – the opportunity to speak for themselves and about themselves.
I believe I nailed this documentary. Los Scandalous – Skid Row displays all the problems that are wrong with Skid Row. Watch, understand and together let’s fix Skid Row.

From the ever-failing mental health system, to members of the public dumping family members, to the bad police reputation and to some of the money hungry missions – the list goes on.

Oh. What about those expensive cars we see at night picking up drug addicted prostitutes for a fun time or executives scoring drugs on their lunch break?

Lets work on the exploitation that’s goes on in Skid Row.

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Do you have a lucky number? 

My lucky number is 01. It sounds refreshing.

What's your favorite place to get a taco?

I like my tacos at Mexicali on 702 N Figueroa St.

shankscameras

What's up next for Shanks Rajendran?

I am looking to run for mayor. Just kidding.

For the rest of 2014, I hope to continue to promote Los Scandalous – Skid Row. Get in a few more film festivals and if funds are there, I’d work on my next documentary... maybe “Hoes of LA” in 2015.

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