GREENWICH VILLAGE — The presence of homeless LGBT youth in Greenwich Village is no secret.
But there's little frank discussion of their lived experience.
Director Cati Gonzalez wants to change that with her feature-length film "Ekaj," which tells the fictional story of a young gay runaway.
Three years in the making, the film is set to screen at Mount Sinai Hospital on Nov. 12 as part of the International Puerto Rican Heritage FIlm Festival.
Gonzalez also launched an Indiegogo page to raise $45,000 to get her film in shape for the top-tier festivals.
WARNING: This trailer includes graphic content:
While her partner of more than 20 years, Mike Gonzalez, edited and did all of the sound mixing for the movie, they need more sophisticated mastering to compete in the festival circuit. They also need money for festival submission fees, travel and putting together DVD packages, which Cati said can cost up to $10,000.
In the film, Ekaj, played by first-time actor Jake Mestre, is hoping to find someone to take care of him but ends up forced to trade sex for money in order to survive. His only friend is Mecca, another outcast who takes Ekaj under his wing but is struggling with his own challenges, including AIDS.
The story, Cati Gonzalez said, was inspired in part by Mike Gonzalez's real childhood experiences. His mother died of AIDS in the 1980s when he was just 6 years old, and he ended up living on the streets for three years when, at age 13, he had no family that would care for him, Cati said.
It was also inspired by Mestre himself, who Cati Gonzalez met during her 20-year career as a photographer. She describes him as "this beautiful kid loaded with problems, and shy."
"At the time, I wanted to make him a model," Cati Gonzalez said. "I never felt that way about discovering anyone before. I photographed some of the greatest faces in my career, but never got hooked as I did for him."
But Mestre would sabotage himself, she said.
"Even though he had a good response in the modeling industry, he would shave his eyebrows right before a casting, or he was always cutting his hair," Gonzalez said. "Always changing unexpectedly, never listening, impossible to control."
Still, she added, "The more that people told me to give up on him, the more I loved him. I identified with him in a mysterious way."
She wrote the script for "Ekaj" with Mestre in mind, along with many others she has known and loved — and sometimes lost — in New York City.
In a promotional video for the movie, Mestre says "Ekaj" is about "the true life of New York City and what the kids go through."
Gonzalez directed and shot the movie herself in Washington Heights, Harlem, The Bronx and Brooklyn, as well as her longtime neighborhood, the Lower East Side.
The film is Gonzalez's first, and she intentionally cast non-actors to play the parts alongside Mestre, wanting people who had “experienced a similar story” or had friends with those experiences.
"It’s hard to believe that so many people can be lonely in a city packed wall-to-wall with people," she said. "Hopefully, this film can inspire many of the families of kids who are going through these hardships in their lives, and can feel what it is like for them."