Homeless Fight Club Miffs Critics
By Steve Friess
LAS VEGAS — One bloodied homeless man, his pants sliding off his back end, pummels a foe into the corner of a public toilet. Another rips his front tooth out with pliers. A third shows off the tattoos coating his penis.
For thousands of people who have forked out at least $22 each for a copy of Bumfights: A Cause For Concern, apparently so. The reality flick, a one-hour parade of gratuitous violence and gore depicting the worst imaginable behavior of homeless people in Las Vegas and Southern California, has reportedly sold 250,000 copies since its mid-April debut and turned its 24-year-old producers into sudden millionaires.
Homeless advocates, pop-culture observers and conservative media groups are all appalled. Howard Stern and Fox News are both fascinated. And the Las Vegas police are actively looking for “victims” of violence depicted in the video who would be willing to file complaints.
All the while, Internet users, some from as far away as Istanbul and as near as Andrews Air Force Base, are logging onto Bumfights.com to get one of their own — and picking up a T-shirt or hooded sweatshirt while they’re at it. The video is only available online.
Ray Leticia and Ty Beeson, Las Vegas natives and preschool pals who say they financed the $50,000 film by maxing out their credit cards, hatched the idea in 1999 while witnessing some homeless men fighting in a run-down section of Vegas known as Naked City.
“We realized that everybody watching was having a pretty good time, so we figured, ‘Why not make a whole video of this?'” Leticia recalls. “We were interested in the inherent humor of something that hasn’t been touched upon in mainstream entertainment, which is homelessness.”
Their modest aim was to raise $100,000 off Bumfights to fund a legitimate independent film career, but the public’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for boundary-busting reality programming has helped them invent a franchise instead.
Some, like Las Vegas homeless advocate Ruth Bruland, wonder what type of people would be willing to capitalize on the poor. Others, including Morality in Media president Robert W. Peters, condemn the video’s popularity as yet another sign of moral decline in America.
But Northwestern University sociology professor Bernard Beck says Bumfights is merely the latest successor in a millennia-old lineage stretching back to the gladiators of ancient Rome and leading more recently to Tonya Harding slugging Paula Jones on Fox.
“One thrill is the amusement at what people are willing to do or let be done to them,” Beck said. “Reality TV by its very nature doesn’t have limits. The idea is to show things that are ordinarily private and watch things that people will volunteer to be in, which then gives you license to watch it.”
Still, the community outcry in Las Vegas is prompting the police to examine whether Leticia and Beeson broke any laws in creating the film. Sgt. Eric Fricker, who oversees the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s homeless-focused detail, said his officers have identified at least one man who claims to have been given money by the Bumfights film crew to hit another man.
To bring charges against the filmmakers for inciting a fight or being responsible for assault, though, police must locate the man who was hit — and convince him to file a complaint.
Many parts of the video seem staged. Aside from raw fighting, which actually comprises only about half of Bumfights, a man called Rufus the Stunt Bum is brought from California to do odd stunts. Shaggy-bearded, bulb-nosed Rufus is shown running headlong into signs, slamming into stacks of crates and sledgehammering a candy machine. Later, he’s treated to a tattoo spelling out “B-U-M-F-I-G-H-T” on his knuckles, thus creating the key box-cover and website image.
Of particular concern to Fricker are a series of segments called “Bum Hunter” in which an Australian man dressed in safari attire startles sleeping homeless men by tackling them and binding their ankles, wrists and mouths with duct tape.
He then goes on to take measurements and point out marks for the camera in a spoof of TV’s Crocodile Hunter. A message preceding the first segment assures viewers, “Very few bums were hurt in the making of this film. All were returned back into their natural habitat.”
Fricker says police have identified the location of many of these segments and hope to find the men attacked. Even if they were paid and signed away the rights to their images, as Leticia maintains, the victims could still sue for assault.
“If you commit a crime against a homeless person and then wave a $50 bill in their face and get them to sign something, that doesn’t make it OK,” Fricker said. “Of course they’re going to take it. They’re vulnerable, desperate people, and often they’re mentally ill.”
Leticia denied paying anyone to incite violence, and in prior media interviews claimed they never paid cash to anyone in the film. Now he acknowledges that they gave money and food, but insists they were gifts “because they’re our friends.”
He predicts the police won’t be able to charge him or Beeson because they have extensive video footage to exonerate them. Those people in the “Bum Hunter” sequences are homeless people they knew, he says, adding, “It was like we were playing a practical joke on our friends.”
Yet Leticia and Beeson’s story has been inconsistent in other ways. The pair have claimed several times to be graduates of film schools at University of Southern California and University of California at Los Angeles, but UCLA has only a record of Beeson applying and never attending.
USC has no record of either man, a spokeswoman said. Leticia first claimed that they instructed those schools not to reveal that they attended, but when pressed he curtly answered, “We attended film schools in L.A. That’s all we’ll say.”
Secrecy is now a way of life for the duo. Leticia refuses even to say what high school he attended and he drives an SUV without license plates “because we don’t want to give anybody a way to figure out how to find us.”
He says he and Beeson receive death threats regularly, although none have been reported to the police, and that tabloid newspapers have propositioned his webmaster for private information about them.
At the same time, Leticia is eager to prove that their success is real. For weeks, he freely offered sales figures and total earnings to reporters — claiming to have raked in more than $2 million by selling 250,000 videos and thousands of shirts by Memorial Day — until a lawyer advised against sharing such data with the public.
But Leticia did log on to his sales website at an Internet cafe to show a day’s worth of sales last week, displaying a log that indicates a sale every four minutes on average.
Still, as questions about their backgrounds intensify, the two men are becoming more unnerved by media coverage and insist their success is owed primarily to their ingenuity. But experts note that Leticia and Beeson are millionaires now thanks to coverage first in the Las Vegas media, then on Howard Stern, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.
“The unique aspect of this project is that they were able to sell some public interest in it through the media,” said Greg Ptacek, spokesman for AFMA (formerly the American Film Marketing Association), a trade group for the independent film industry.
“Most producers think it’s interesting to sell directly to the public through the Internet, but the problem is how you get people to know about it. Howard Stern’s not going to be interested in a romantic comedy being sold only on the Internet unless there’s something weird or sick about it.”
Leticia also bristles at the notion that they’ve taken advantage of homeless people. Bruland and Fricker can accuse them of exploitation, but he says part of the goal of Bumfights is to prod the public through parody and exaggeration into recognizing how dehumanized homeless people feel.
A defensive Leticia says they’ve done more for homeless people than the critics: “Have they actively searched out these people before to help them in any way? No.”
One prominent homeless activist, Ted Hayes of Dome Village in Los Angeles, is a Bumfights fan. Hayes, who organized the National Homeless Convention during the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, called the video “the best thing that has happened to the homeless movement in the 17 years I’ve been involved” for the attention it has brought to the gruesome reality of street life.
Leticia said he’s considering giving 10 percent of the profits from Bumfights to Hayes’ organization.
Bruland is offended by the notion that the images in the video are an accurate reflection of the Vegas homeless population and its lifestyle, and Fricker says such grotesque violence and behavior is not that common.
“They have taken the smallest part of the homeless population and, by virtue of the video, are teaching the nation that that’s what homelessness is,” said Bruland, executive director of Father Joe’s MASH Village, a shelter and service agency.
“Our facility is filled by families and women over 60. And the way (the filmmakers) are treating that part of the population they show is only perpetuating the very things that have made them homeless in the first place.”
Talk of wholesome motives aside, Leticia isn’t willing to totally cloak his efforts in a do-good sheen. The controversy was intentional, he says, and he has accomplished his primary objective.
“The video is designed to shock,” he says. “We’re quite aware that some people find it hilarious and some people find it disgusting. That’s what sells videos.”