When Michael Wallace turns on a light in his home he says “thank you.” He says the same when he turns on a tap or flushes his toilet.
In his one-bedroom suite in Langford, his couch and bed occupy the living room and the bedroom houses guitars and his music studio. It’s world away from living on the streets of Victoria.
After a series of unfortunate events, including a tragic car crash that nearly killed his son, the 56-year-old single-dad found himself homeless for five years starting in 2002. Metchosin filmmaker and University of Victoria student Shiraz Higgins, 22, has explored Wallace’s life of living rough in his documentary film So Close to Home.
In an honest and vulnerable tone, Wallace talks about his experiences and feelings of sorrow, hopelessness and gratitude as he revisits old haunts on the streets downtown Victoria or squatting in a home near Elk Lake.
In the documentary, Wallace breaks down in tears while revisiting locations where he slept or hung out. At his lowest point, he said all he needed was some one to talk to. “You never know about someone unless you talk to them and truly take the time to listen,” Wallace said.
“There are some scenes that are pretty heavy stuff, but the rest of the time filming was all laughs,” Higgins said. “He would break down and then there would be laughs right after.
Throughout his life on the street, Wallace always had his guitar, a black Fender.
“A homeless person told me to get one with the lacquer because it (could withstand) the rain,” Wallace said. “When it rained I could loosen the strings and put my clothes inside.”
He composed more than 300 guitar songs and his music is featured on the film’s soundtrack.
Higgins met Wallace through the editor of the Street Newz publication in Victoria about four years ago. Wallace was eager to tell his story. Filming started in September 2009 and the shoot extends over two and a half years. They became close friends during the production.
Higgins’ friend Darrin DeStephanis helped with interviews and filming. “Darrin and I were both affected by making the film,” Higgins said. “It definitely makes me feel lucky to have avoided this type of hardship in my life.”
The sincerity of Higgins and DeStephanis allowed him to open up in front of the camera, Wallace said. “I have to thank Shiraz because this was like therapy to me.”
“Michael has a positive outlook on life,” Higgins added. “People want to listen to him and be around him.”
So Close to Home is the first film for Higgins and was shot on the bare bones budget of $2,500. He admits he didn’t really know much about filmmaking and learned to shoot, interview and edit as he went.
“This was a real learning process. I am overly ambitious,” Higgins said. “I think Michael’s story really characterizes the film and carries the film.”
One month before filming began, Wallace found a place to live. His son Arthur bought a home in Langford with a settlement he had received from the car crash and welcomed his father to live in the basement suite.
These days Wallace is working as a carpenter, along with rebuilding a boat and doing odd handyman jobs. He is also working to establish an organic farm in Saanich.
Wallace has been in his home for nearly three years, and said he feels gratitude for everything he has. He acutely remembers what it’s like to not have anything.
“Sometimes I just walk and say ‘thank you,’” he said. “If it starts raining on me I say, ‘thank you for the rain.”