It was 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday when Billy Kubart, a homeless man sleeping behind a building on Ninth Street, was startled awake. Documentary filmmaker Kerri Yost was standing over him, waiting to start telling his story.
Later, it was Yost, 31, who was startled when her film about Kubart won the Audience Award at the inaugural Silverdocs documentary film festival in June. The American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel sponsor the festival, held in Silver Springs, Md.
“Billy” was one of 70 films selected to be shown out of more than 1,000 entries. It tells one man’s story of surviving on the streets of Columbia. “Billy” shows Tuesday and Wednesday at the Ragtag Cinemacafé. Suddenly cast into the limelight, Yost of Columbia went from being “the most unknown person there” to the target of interviews and questions.
At first, Yost was skeptical about making the film. She first met Kubart — a 50-something Vietnam veteran who, in the film, always has a cup of coffee in his hand — while working on a project about what people wear and why. She was downtown asking people about their wardrobe choices and Kubart gave an “entertaining response.”
They started talking and he suggested Yost do a film about him, but she hesitated. “Oh God, another film about homeless people,” she thought.
Kubart didn’t give up, and the result is a film that has earned audience praise and inspired people throughout the United States.
But there is one person who hasn’t seen it —- Billy Kubart.
As soon as filming was done, he moved to Florida because the weather was turning cold and he was sick. Yost hasn’t heard from him since.
She said it’s important that she find Kubart because she wants him to see the significance of his story. “It was so unplanned, but since then, it has affected so many people,” Yost said. “All these people all over America are looking for this man.”
The National Coalition for the Homeless aided Yost in her search by directing her to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ office in St. Louis, which has been sending copies of the 21-minute film and pictures of its star to various communities in efforts to find him and to create awareness about homelessness.
She’s had some luck. Kubart met with a caseworker at a hospital in Florida, and now hospital staffers are waiting for him to return so they can tell him about the film’s success.
Yost is now working on a short film about a father-son garden tractor pulling team, as well as a feature-length film about Bosnian refugees who have built a community in Columbia. “Nobody in Columbia has any idea they live here,” she said.
Yost became interested in making the Bosnian film through her work at the Adult Learning Center, where she helps refugees find jobs and access to education. She works there as a supervisor for the English as a Second Language programs and teaches ESL classes.
Yost grew up in Warrensburg and graduated in 1994 from MU with an English degree. Soon after, she moved to London on a whim and started working in a coffee shop.
“London was my film school,” she said. “It was the first place I saw films that I liked.”
After two years there, she moved to Poland and taught English while making films. She returned to the United States in 1999 and spent a year in Chicago teaching English and working as a temp. The next year, she returned to Missouri, first earning a master’s degree in linguistics at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg before moving to Columbia.
Yost, who uses a Panasonic AG-DVX100 digital camera, said filmmaking sometimes makes her feel like she has two lives — “my regular life and then the one I’m in while I’m filming.”
In addition to the actual filming, she spends a lot of time researching subjects and preparing for her films, and getting advice from other filmmakers about technique.
But there are aspects of the craft that only experience teaches.
“The hardest part is the ethics. How much are you contributing to their life?” she said of her subjects. “There’s no one to talk to about that. You have to go with your gut feeling.”
Money is a more concrete challenge. In Yost’s current documentary, she would like to include the reunion of a husband and wife who were separated when one was granted refugee status in the United States and the other was not. The reunion would include the father’s first moments with his child who was born in the United States while he was in Bosnia — but without the money, those moments are difficult to catch.
However, Yost is known as resourceful when it comes to paying for her projects.
“With incredibly limited means, she’s able to put together really compelling art,” said Columbia musician Phil James, who worked with Yost on “You Were Dazzle,” a video for one of his multimedia theater pieces. “With the absolute minimum, she’s able to get to the heart of the piece.”
Even if Yost had unlimited amounts of money, she wouldn’t spend it all on herself. Instead she would like to invest in a public access channel to benefit more people, she said. Yost is part of the Columbia Media Resource Alliance, which is trying to get a public access channel for the city. She thinks it would help people in the community get to know more about each other.
“People don’t have a sense of who’s in their own town anymore,” she said.