From Homelessness to the Oscar Stage

An illegal immigrant, Inocente Izucar spent much of her childhood on the streets after her father was deported back to Mexico. Her luck changed when Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine made a documentary about her and her art that won the Oscar. On Sunday...

Feb 28 2013, 11:00am

Until fairly recently, 19-year-old Inocente Izucar had pretty much the shittiest childhood imaginable. An illegal immigrant, Inocente ended up homeless at a young age after her father was deported back to Mexico. She spent the majority of her childhood living on the streets and in shelters with her mother and three younger brothers. At one point, things got so bad that Inocente's mother led her by the hand to a bridge where she planned to have them both jump off together, before being talked out of it by her daughter.

Her luck changed a few years ago when Academy Award-nominated producing couple Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine decided to make a documentary about her and her art (which you can watch the trailer for above). On Sunday, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, and Inocente was there to collect the award. Her appearance was a refreshing change from the parade of the rich and famous men who make up the majority of the ceremony, so I got in touch with Inocente, Sean, and Andrea to talk with them about the experience.

VICE: First I just wanna say congrats on the Oscar win.
Inocente Izucar: Thank you. 

How did you guys meet Inocente?
Andrea Nix Fine: We looked for her for months and months. She was our needle in a haystack. Basically, we really wanted to make a film about a homeless kid, because we came across the statistic that one in 45 kids in the US experiences homelessness. It's something we felt nobody really knew about and nobody was paying attention to, so we were very interested in doing a film where we found somebody going through that experience, and we were particularly interested in finding an artist because I felt that would be a wonderful way to meet somebody and experience her dreams. So we just started calling all over the country and eventually we ended up talking to a San Diego-based group called A Reason to Survive that helps kids who face adversity get into art, and they introduced us to Inocente. 

And, Inocente, what was your situation like when you met the Fines, for people who haven't seen the film?
Inocente: I was 15, and I'd been homeless for like, nine years. 

Would you mind describing the events that led up to your becoming homeless?
Inocente: Well, my dad basically kidnapped me and my three brothers and brought us up to the US from Mexico. He told my mom he would come get her later, but he never did, so my mom crossed the border by herself to come find us. When she got here, he was really abusive. And one day it was really bad, so we called the cops. Here in the US domestic violence isn't tolerated, so when the cops came, he was deported. The place we were living was his sister's house, and because it was his side of the family, we ended up in the shelter. 

Was it mostly shelters you were living in during this period? Did you always have a roof over your head, or did you sometimes have to sleep outside?
Inocente: There were times when we had to sleep outside, like, in the park. And I remember my mom would have to stay awake because, of course, it's scary when you have to sleep outside. You know, people are mean sometimes. So she would stay awake and watch, and wake us up in time to go to school. 

When you were filming the documentary, did you have any idea what kind of impact it would have on your life?
Inocente: I didn't. But I'm really happy how everything is turning out because it's been really good for me. I've connected with a lot of people, and messages have been coming to me from people with similar stories, which makes me realize how blessed I am.

Sean, Inocente, Andrea, and the film's editor Jeff Consiglio collecting their Oscar.

What was it like going to the Oscars?
Inocente: I was really nervous, but it was really cool. It was a really weird experience because you never expect yourself to be there. I'd never even watched the Oscars before. 

Who did you get to meet at the awards? Did you get to meet anyone you liked?
Inocente: I met everybody that I liked! I met Daniel Radcliffe from Harry Potter, he was so nice, and Daniel Day-Lewis kissed me. 

Nice. Did you guys get the Academy Award goodie bags?
Andrea: Ha, no, they don't do that for us types. 

But we did get a gold statue! So I can't complain. 

What are you guys gonna do with your awards? I heard that Adele used one of her awards as a toilet-paper holder.  
Sean Fine:
Well firstly, our kid is taking it to show-and-tell. 

That's a pretty good show-and-tell. I feel sorry for the kid who has to follow that. 
Then we need to put them up high in our house, because our kids are five and eight. And, last night, they were both holding one. And because they're boys, they wanted to make them do action-figure stuff. I had to be like, "DO NOT hit them together!"

Did you get to go to the parties after, as well?
Andrea: We went to the Vanity Fair party. It was insane and so much fun. Innocente was the belle of the ball, she walked around and just, like, walked up to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Taylor Lautner and Steven Tyler from Aerosmith.

Sean: It was a cool party. Because we also realized that the film had an impact on some people. And all these people were coming up to us and thanking us. Like, Peter Fonda came up and said, "Thank you for being artists, art is important, that's what this is about," which was really cool.

In your acceptance speech, you said, “We feel like we need to start supporting the arts. They’re dying in our communities. And all of us artists, we need to stand up and help girls like her be seen and heard.” What made you decide to talk about that in your speech?
Sean: The three of us talked about it, we asked Inocente what she felt was important to talk about, and she said the arts and homelessness.

Andrea: It's hard because they only give you 30 seconds, which is not a lot of time to get through this stuff, especially when you're totally overwhelmed at the same time.

Sean: And everyone kept giving us these warnings, like, if you win you'll see this big clock and you'll get nervous, but I looked down at all the actors in front of us, and they were so close, and there were so many great artists there, people who I look up to and admire. And when I said, "A year ago this girl was homeless," I saw people's mouths open. And I was like, Wow, she just had an impact. And that was so cool. Arts education is an important issue, and something we need to start paying attention to because it's been decimated.

Inocente, can you tell me a little about what your life has been like since the movie came out?
Inocente: My life is pretty good right now. My art has exposure, I have an exhibition coming up in New York in the summer, I've been able to sell some pieces, I have an apartment now, and I adopted two bunny rabbits. And now the documentary has been at the Oscars and a lot of people saw it, hopefully a lot of people will be interested in helping. Not just me, but everybody who the film represents, all the kids out there who are homeless and artists and immigrants.  

If it's not too personal, can I ask how your relationship is with your mom? In the documentary, things were rocky between you. 
Inocente: It's a lot better. We don't live together right now, which has been good for our relationship. And the film gave her the opportunity to open up and tell her side of the story, which I think helped her a lot.

Do you still keep in touch with people from the streets?
Inocente: I've kept in touch with some of my friends and people I've met at shelters. It's really sad because I wish I could help. I wish I could let them live with me. It's really frustrating for me to see my friends struggling. 

Earlier you said one in 45 children in the US is homeless at some point, right? Why do you think more isn't being done about that?
Andrea: I think one of the primary issues is that this is an invisible population.

Yeah, actually, I had no idea that child homelessness was even an issue in this country until I saw an episode of Sesame Street about it a couple of years ago. 
Andrea: Yeah, it's crazy! In a normal school classroom in the US, there are 22 kids. So if you take two classrooms, one kid is going to be homeless. And if you think about all the classrooms in the US, that's a lot of kids. It's redefining the idea of what it is to be in a home, because a lot of the times, people lose the ability to hold down an apartment, so they're just shifting around all the time, and families break up because it's really difficult to keep everyone together and move them into one place. Kids end up sleeping on friends' couches, so there's this unravelling of the family unit. And there's no advocacy, this is a population with no power.  

Sean: Nobody stops to ask these kids what's going on. Nobody says, What are your dreams? What are your aspirations? And many of them have potential, like Inocente. They could be great, and I think we don't stop enough to ask those questions, we let them stay invisible. 

To see some of Inocente's art, go here.

To watch the movie through iTunes, go here.

To read more about the arts program that Inocente was a part of, go here.


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