The first night Australian filmmaker Shanks Rajendran visited Skid Row, he nearly got the crap beaten out of him. As he sat in his car at 5th and Maple, shooting through the windshield, a half-dozen or so pissed-off looking black men approached. "You can't be doing that here! You know that!" one shouted.
"You can't be filming the street," said another, a guy named Lavell Putman. "People are doing personal private things around here ... We got entrepreneurs and other things around here."
Rajendran apologized, started his car, and tried to flee. The group of men blocked him. They seized his camera and may have done far worse, were it not for Putman.
Not only did Putman get the camera back, he became the 28-year-old director's personal guide. Like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, Putman would, over the next 18 months, introduce Rajendran to scores of pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, hustlers, and most of all, dope fiends. Putman interviewed virtually all of them —in fact, he stars in Los Scandalous, a new documentary that may be the most shocking portrait of L.A.'s Skid Row ever filmed:
Los Scandalous has a raw, almost amateur feel that recalls some 1990s-era HBO documentaries. It is Rajendran's first feature-length film, and it cost next to nothing to make, as he had zero crew members, other than Putman.
The film focuses on people living on the streets of Skid Row, nearly all of whom are addicted to drugs. "It’s like spring break everyday," says Rajendran. "We wanted to show the streets are infested with drugs."
The first week of filming, he met a young man in braids, playing a guitar. "I’m just gonna be here for while," the kid said. By the second week, he had sold his guitar for drugs. By the third week, says Rajendran, "he was basically gone."
Of other Skid Row documentaries, Putman told Rajendran, "That’s shit’s not real."
The charming Putman interviews the subjects politely yet fearlessly: "Why do you smoke crack, if you don't mind my asking?" he asks a drug addict. "How much do you make a day, if you don't mind my asking?" he asks a transgender prostitute. He calls many of the men "OG" and "player"; they open up to him because he is one of them.
Many of the subjects apparently found the interview experience therapeutic.
"A lot of them appreciated it," says Rajendran. "It’s almost like, when I point the camera, they feel like they're human."
Of course, most of them never would have started talking if it weren't for Putman, whom many of them knew and trusted.
Rajendran calls Putman a "hustler," and Putman implies in the documentary that he has at least a passing acquaintance with drug dealing (though he is, apparently, not a drug user himself – a number of times, he chastises interview subjects for blowing crack smoke in his face). He was raised in Compton and says he was in a gang, once tried to rob a bank, and another time was shot in the head. He still has a bullet lodged in there, moving around.
"Sometimes he was like, 'Man, my head hurts,'" says Rajendran. "It’s near the brain. It’s traveling down toward his spine, creeping down."
The two formed a bond. Rajendran would bring him to "normal places," like church, or a sushi restaurant in Koreatown. Putman came to believe the documentary was his way out of "the game," that the movie would change his life. He had the idea that the documentary would premiere and he'd get invited to speak in schools.
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"Being part of this documentary made me take a step back and look at the environment I've been so used to," Putman wrote in a statement on the film's website.
But about a week after filming wrapped, Putman was thrown in jail. He was released, but was soon back. He's currently in North County Correctional Facility awaiting trial. According to a spokesman for the D.A.'s office, he's facing three felony charges: two counts of second-degree robbery and one count of assault with deadly weapon.