On the Road with Sean Penn and the Dirty Hands Caravan

“What the fuck is Sean Penn doing on the main stage of Coachella?” he said.  I had wandered over from watching Metric perform on the Coachella Music and Arts Festival’s outdoor theater to find out this very thing: Why was Sean Penn slated 15 minutes on the main stage between Gogol Bordello and My Morning Jacket? 

To a lukewarm audience, Sean Penn described his dissatisfaction with the current political environment, his disappointment with certain policy positions of all the candidates (he listed their support of the death penalty in particular), and his anger with the world and environment older generations will be bequeathing to today’s youth. 

There was a reason he was proselytizing on this soap box, though: he went on to describe his plan to gather a large group of people on three buses (running on a bio-diesel mixture) and carry them across the southwestern states, doing volunteer work along the way, before ending up in the New Orleans Jazz Festival to continue spreading the message of volunteerism (spoiler: we never made it to the Jazz Festival).

I was curious and had no pressing responsibilities, so I signed up at a little kiosk next to the Virgin Megastore tent.

The next morning, on Monday, April 28, people gradually gathered around the Energy Factory Clock Tower at the entrance to the festival grounds.  A number of people had been camping that weekend already, but there was still a vast disparity in people’s preparedness.  Those that had not been camping were provided with tents and sleeping bags by two of the primary festival organizers who also gave a speech describing their support of Sean Penn’s activism and their excitement for this idea in general.  There were a number of speeches that morning, including a brief one by Sean Penn wherein he thanked a number of the people that were helping to organize this whole endeavor.

Before we departed, to the tune of The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” blaring from a nearby truck, the volunteers were invited to paint one of the buses.  People for the most part painted your standard hippy-bus-crossing-the-country material: peace signs; flowers; messages like “New Orleans or Bust” and “When we talk about peace, we’re really talking about war”; and assorted smatterings of regional flavor (“Boston” written next to a large green shamrock). 

On the front of the bus, though, someone spray-painted the words “Eat Pussy” and “Billy.”  Billy, I later learned, was not even on the caravan: he merely showed up to drop a friend off and express certain proclivities of his in large painted letters on the front of a bus. 

This, however, inspired the first in what would be many sit-downs and lectures that would occur throughout the trip.  Doug Goodman, the tour manager for the trip, told us, essentially, that people couldn’t be doing stuff like this, that we already looked like a bunch of crazies and stuff like that would draw a great deal of negative media attention, a thing we were already very susceptible to.  This, the fear of negative press, was a very common concern on this trip and was often brought up over the next ten days.

photo credit: Skylar Lincoln

photo credit: Skylar Lincoln

On the bus that day, we watched a documentary called “The Third Wave,” about a group of volunteers working in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami.  A handful of people that appear in the film, including some of the film’s creators, Alison Thompson and Oscar Gubernati, were filming a documentary about the Dirty Hands Caravan. 

I later got a chance to sit down and speak with Alison Thompson, listed on imdb.com as the director and executive producer of “The Third Wave.”  Alison is an Australian—a daughter of missionaries—with absurdly blond hair, ridiculously blue eyes, and a calm and sweet demeanor that seems appropriately suited to being in front of a camera as well as behind it. 

She told me that her work in Sri Lanka was about getting involved and volunteering, and that the documentary came about quite naturally by simply passing the camera around between the volunteers and telling them to record some of their experiences.  When I asked her, she told me she was prompted into volunteerism while she was living in New York during the 9/11 attacks; Alison rollerbladed to ground zero and began trying to help in any way she could. 

“I’ve seen mankind at its best and its worst,” Alison said.  “Helping people gives you confidence, it makes you feel good.”  She went on to describe what she felt The Dirty Hands Caravan and its corresponding documentary is about: providing people with “a road map” so they can more easily find ways to volunteer in their community and abroad, something that people can emulate on their own.  She says that the message needs to get out that “citizens need to take the world back into their own hands,” and that Dirty Hands is a wanted ad: “Volunteers needed, no skills required.” 

Sean Penn chose Alison and Oscar to help film the Dirty Hands documentary because of his interest in “The Third Wave,” an interest that has also spurred him to screen the film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival on May 16. 

Short anecdote about Alison: when we arrived in New Orleans, some kind of insect larvae had created a large cocoon on her dress which she had me remove because she was too disgusted by it. 

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