Tucson Salvage: Couple shows humanity of others through documentary and book

By Laura Latzko

Through their body of work, award-winning writer Brian Jabas Smith and filmmaker Maggie Smith, a Tucson husband-and-wife team, delve into the realities for people living on the fringe.

Their newest work, the documentary “Tucson Salvage,” follows five people, who share their stories and provide a glimpse into lives of working-class and impoverished people.

The film was adapted by Maggie from Brian’s Tucson Weekly column and his book “Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections from La Frontera.”

The two will visit the Sedona Creative Life Center on Sunday, May 26, as part of a screening/reading with live electric violin music from Brian’s brother Barry Smith.

The documentary has been shown in different parts of the country and in England. It won Best Documentary Short at the Culver City Film Festival and Best Original Screenplay at the Golden State Film Festival.

Maggie says when adapting stories from Brian’s book, she chose subjects whose stories worked well together and spoke to her.

“These subjects in particular really leapt out to me, and I had an understanding or attraction to their stories, kind of the way that Brian does to all of them. For me, it was easier to get in there, interview and portray them because I already felt a kinship with the people that I picked,” Maggie says.

Maggie says it wasn’t challenging to adapt Brian’s descriptive columns into film.

“I think his strong sense of character and his strong sense of place really lend themselves really well to film. As long as you have a strong sense of what you are going to shoot and who you are going to shoot, you are pretty OK. You just have to really listen to the subject and let them guide you,” Maggie says.

Seeing his work on film for the first time was an emotional experience for Brian.

“They are stories of humanity. To see it captured on film, with the beauty of the southwest, the desert and the scenes of Tucson, was really moving,” Brian says.

Brian says the documentary helps further his mission of giving a voice to underrepresented people in Tucson.

“The whole idea is to get below the surface of the human experience, to the best of my abilities. To see that captured on film is perfect because it is done so well, for one. It is my wife, but I would say that, even if she wasn’t my wife. She captured the real humanity of these people,” Brian says.

Maggie went into the project wanting to feature her subjects’ natural speech cadences and personalities in a raw, unfiltered way.

“All five of the people have endured really strong hardships or are enduring it, but they have an amazing attitude, and their spirits are completely intact. I found it quite inspirational that they are able to be kind and generous people, and all of them are outward focused,” Maggie says.

The column, book and film have helped to show these subjects’ stories have value and should be shared. Maggie says that being filmed often brought out a different side of the subjects.

“Sometimes, they would even come alive in a different way on camera. They would ham it up a little more or be more comfortable because they were revisiting their stories and realized the second time around that there was something worth telling to it. It leads to them finding a certain self-worth that is really amazing to watch, and hopefully that’s captured too,” Maggie says.

Maggie hopes the film inspires audiences to keep from passing judgment on and to see the humanity in others.

Telling stories

In the documentary, Maggie focuses on Ray, an amputee, ex-con and graffiti artist; Pepper and John, two recovering addicts who once faced homelessness; Del, a transgender activist, ex-con and Bajito Onda founder; Andy, a recovering addict, ex-con and MMA fighter and Dawn, a metal artist and dumpster diver.

Dawn Brandt dumpster dives for items such as car or TV parts and incorporates them into her work. She started doing this when metal became increasingly expensive.

“I started not wanting to purchase my materials because they had gone up almost 300%. I started to recycle everything. It’s amazing how the universe steps up and hands me everything that I need,” Brandt says.

Participating in “Tucson Salvage” gave her a new perspective on her work.

“I lived down the stigma. They helped me do that, not worry about it. As long as you are being good and kind to everybody, it’s not a bad thing,” Brandt says.

Maggie and Brian have a talent for bringing out the best qualities in others, Brandt adds. Maggie filmed each subject for around five to six hours and edited it down to 5- to 6-minute segments.

Seeing herself on film was a strange experience for Brandt at first, but she felt she was portrayed accurately.

“I saw it a second time, and I was like, ‘Man, I was funny.’ I think that’s how I approach things. I like to laugh, and I like to have everyone around me laugh,” Brandt says. “There was some very serious topics in that movie, and I think they put me last because I was a release at the end. I was a little worried that I would come out looking silly because I’m jumping in trash cans, looking for treasure. It could have been bad, but it wasn’t. It was lovely.”

Maggie says she wanted to present her subjects as truthfully as possible.

“You end up falling in love with people who let their guard down that much and reveal that much about themselves. They are being so honest, and that’s just an admirable thing. So, it just made me really work hard to do them justice,” Maggie says.

Brian and Maggie hope to expand the documentary into a series, focusing on four people in each episode.

It was around three and a half years ago that Brian started writing his column “Tucson Salvage.”

Brian approached Tucson Weekly with the idea for his column shortly after moving back to Tucson from Detroit, where he worked as an editor for the Metro Times before losing his job due to cutbacks.

He did a similar column for the Phoenix New Times back the late 1990s and early 2000s.

For his column, he follows his subjects for a few days, often visiting them in their homes and workplaces.

It doesn’t begin with pre-conceived questions. Brian simply starts conversations with his subjects and sees where they lead him.

“I just go out and hopefully I meet someone who is interesting. I look for people whose stories should be told, who aren’t being told,” Brian says.

He describes their settings in great detail. He has found this helps to give readers more of a sense of who his subjects are.

Tucson, with its beauty and grittiness, is a prominent backdrop in both his work and Maggie’s documentary.

He says getting people to open up to him is a gradual process, one that hasn’t that much gotten easier over time.

“I’m so insecure about my own abilities as an interviewer and as a writer, sometimes I get swallowed up by that and consumed by that. I start worrying about what they think of me, which is counterproductive to the whole interview process. I have to overcome that, and I have to worry about earning their trust enough so that they will open up and tell their stories,” Brian says.

“These people that I talk to, mostly none of them have been interviewed before. In a way, that makes it harder because they are nervous. In some ways, that makes it easier because they are willing to be more forthright.”

Like many of his subjects, Brian has faced personal struggles. He dealt with depression, been homeless and has overcome addiction to crystal meth and alcohol.

His book “Spent Saints & Other Stories” shares his experiences as a bicycle racing champion, a frontman for the rock group Beat Angels and a drug addict. Maggie adapted this work into 8-minute segments.

Maggie says because of his background, Brian is able to relate to the people he interviews.

Maggie found although subjects are reserved at first, they open up as they share details about their lives.

“People tend to like being asked questions, especially those who are never asked about their personal experiences,” Maggie says.

Maggie says she and Brian work well together as a creative team not just because of their unique talents and points of view but because of their ability to connect with subjects in different ways.

“We like to think that we bring out different sides in the subjects that we interview. Having a male-female counterpoint is always nice for interviewing male and female subjects because one person will go a lot further with one of us than the other,” Maggie says.

more info

What: “Tucson Salvage” Reading and Screening

When: 4 p.m. Sunday, May 26

Where: Sedona Creative Life Center, 333 Schnebly Hill Road, Sedona

Cost: Free admission

Info: facebook.com/tucsonsalvage.talesandrecollections/