Latest reality-show uproar: 'Bumfights'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One 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 bashes open a candy machine with a sledgehammer.

That's entertainment? For thousands of people who have forked out at least $22 each for a copy of "Bumfights: A Cause for Concern," apparently so.

The hour-long flick, which through violence and gore depicts the worst imaginable behavior of homeless people in Las Vegas and southern California, has sold more than 250,000 copies since its April debut. It's also turned its producers into millionaires.

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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 – even though some of the film's sequences were staged.

In one sense, "Bumfights" is merely the latest installment in a lineage stretching back to ancient Roman gladiators and leading more recently to Tonya Harding slugging Paula Jones on Fox. But this video takes the coarsening of US society a step beyond enterprises like "Fear Factor" or "Temptation Island." Many cultural observers believe it takes advantage of some of America's most vulnerable people in a way that is degrading if not dangerous – and crosses a new threshold in defining what's entertainment.

That's led many homeless advocates and media experts to accuse "Bumfights" of an exploitation that strips away dignity in a way reality TV hasn't done – at least not yet.

"This is no different than all the people who went to PT Barnum's circuses to see the freak show, only now you can order it up in private off the Internet and don't have to wait for PT Barnum to come to town," says Lenny Steinhorn, a communications professor and pop-culture expert at American University in Washington. "We have this curious side of us for things that are different, things that go wrong, things that are bizarre."

Indeed, Internet users, some from as far away as Australia or Turkey, are logging onto the "Bumfights" website to buy a copy of the film – and picking up a T-shirt or hooded sweatshirt while they're at it. The video is available only online.

Ray Leticia and Ty Beeson, preschool pals who say they financed the $20,000 film on their credit cards, hatched the idea after 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?' " Mr. Leticia recalls. "We were interested in the inherent humor of something that hasn't been touched upon in mainstream entertainment, which is homelessness."

Their aim was to raise $100,000 off "Bumfights" to fund a legitimate independent film career. Another goal, they claimed later after the criticism began, was to prod the public into recognizing how dehumanized homeless people feel.

But it soon became clear that the public's seemingly unquenchable thirst for boundary-busting reality programming has helped them invent a franchise. An even-more bizarre sequel is promised in August, Leticia says.

For months, Leticia told reporters his film crews caught the footage themselves, but more recently, he confessed he collected it by soliciting for street-fight footage through advertisements in local college newspapers. Some segments, he also admitted, were staged altogether. But, he claims, sales haven't slumped after these admissions.

Meanwhile, community outcry in Las Vegas is prompting the police to examine whether Leticia and Beeson broke any laws in creating the film. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sgt. Eric Fricker 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 persuade him to file a complaint.

Of particular concern to Sergeant Fricker is 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 takes measurements and points out marks on the homeless men for the camera in a spoof of TV's "Crocodile Hunter."

Leticia says he has outtake footage to prove these segments were all staged by actors, but Fricker still says some of the action may not be fake and needs to be probed. "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. But Leticia and Beeson's story has been inconsistent in other ways. For example, the pair, who are in their early 20s, have claimed several times to be graduates of film schools in Los Angeles that have no record of their attending.

Still, they're earnest to prove that their success is real. Leticia accessed his sales website at an Internet cafe recently to show a reporter a few different days' worth of logs. The data indicate a video is sold every four minutes, on average.

Staged or not, Las Vegas homeless advocate Ruth Bruland is offended by the notion that the images in the video are an accurate reflection of life on the streets. "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," says Ms. Bruland, executive director of Father Joe's MASH Village, a shelter and service agency. "Our facility is filled by families and women over 60."

To be sure, Leticia isn't willing to totally cloak his efforts in a do-good sheen. The controversy was intentional, he says, and 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."

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