We continue our exclusive post coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival by exploring film’s grip on the human pulse. Elizabeth Lo, who was named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine in 2015 and was featured as one of 14 filmmakers in the 2015 New Directors’ Showcase at Cannes Lion, discussed her thoughts on films impact on society and how her award-winning short film, Hotel 22, influenced policy makers.
1. Hotel 22 was a catalyst for discussion around social inequality (affordable housing), the great irony of silicon valley, and homelessness. TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) took place over a week ago. What are some ingredients that would allow some impactful films to navigate the festivals but still enter the public consciousness?
I’ve been very surprised by the reception to Hotel 22, and amazed by how it’s been able to traverse the film festival circuit and even the advertising world – but also how it’s been embraced by social activism and community organizations. I think that going online (in my case with New York Times Op Docs) has been the most impactful way for films to enter the public consciousness. By having it be accessible on the web, particularly a news site, people who don’t typically attend film festivals can watch it in full.
Because of its online exposure, charity groups and foundations have found me and the film, as well as film professors and students, and often times people who are not related to the film world at all. This has been the most rewarding experience – seeing the things that people outside of filmmaking have been able to use my film to achieve (like work with the bus company to put a case manager on the bus who will hopefully work to house riders who are in need). This is more than any filmmaker could ask for.
2. Trains, buses—we “shelter” our deepest thoughts in these modes of transportation, but we’re often healthy, privileged and awake. What did you learn about sleep deprivation and mental illness during those days of shooting Hotel 22?
I like your idea of ‘sheltering’ our deepest thoughts in these moments of transit, where we’re just getting from here to there and free to reflect about where we’re going next or what we’ve just come from. But for the riders who use the bus for actual shelter, this limbo state is the destination, and there’s something about that that feels very bleak, almost Sisyphean. I shot Hotel 22 over the course of a week, filming long nights into the sunrise.
I tend to become nocturnal if left to my own devices, but even then, being on this bus night after night left me so exhausted on all fronts, my body, my mind, everything. At the same time that I was “tired,” I knew that my experience was just a glimpse of what it must be like for the people who’ve been doing this every single night for years – years as they inch their way up a public housing list, and with no escape or safety net.
3. You used the silent observational approach; there is a sort of verité element about your film that draws people in. It literally feels like I was present. What is it about silence the reveals the most pain and, in this case, brings us closer to empathy?
I think films that seduce you into them, that trust and let their audiences do the mental work, are the ones that I find most pleasure and inspiration in as a viewer. So I tried to replicate this in the aesthetic parameters I set for myself as I made this film: no voices, just visions. A lot of documentaries tend to tell viewers what their “characters” or “protagonists” are thinking with the presumption that we care about their lives. But that mode has rarely moved me, unless you’re using interviews in the way that Heddy Honigmann or Errol Morris do.
So instead, I hoped that by not telling viewers what the riders were thinking or feeling, viewers would be forced to imagine it in the void of information, and in doing that, engage in the act of empathy. In letting viewers do the hard work – to connect the dots on their own between themselves and the riders – my hope is that this film is participating in the ethical process of breaking down the barriers that separate us from one another.
4. Three fold question: You explore the “boundaries between species, class, and states of personhood.”Do you think our capitalistic society will always have second-class citizens? And what role does documentary films play in society—what gravitated you toward this medium?
I’ve always been interested in how fluid and arbitrary states of personhood are within a society. As a human and a woman and a Chinese person, I’m both a beneficiary and victim of existing hierarchies depending on where I am, and I try to be very aware of all of this as I move through life. I think of loving something or someone, and imagine them as being disposable in the wider world because of the beliefs and prejudices of an era, and that horrifies me. I hate the idea of a world with second class citizens, where the perspectives and experiences of some matter more or less than others. I don’t think this is something exclusive to capitalistic societies. It’s depressing, but I see it as a realm that’s also full of potential.
Whether it’s the rights of children, certain species of animals, genders/orientations…these things have changed and have the potential to change so dramatically over a relatively short period of time that I feel there’s always somewhere to progress towards. Even if inequality is a pervasive reality in our world, I’m driven to use the language I’ve become most adept at – filmmaking – to strive to bridge the gap. I’m also drawn to the documentary/film medium because of its potential to explore these boundaries of perception through languages that aren’t necessarily even verbal. Its potential to renew our ways of perceiving the world can be really influential, even if only for a moment in the cinema.
5. How did you persuade the subjects to be involved in the film? I’m sure there were some pushback—and, did you grapple with any moral hesitation?
Every night there would be at least one person that didn’t want to be filmed, and I would stay away from them. I think I was around enough (before production and during) that I felt that I too had become a character on the Hotel 22 bus. People had heard about me making this film, and people grew to tolerate me – of course, some were more supportive and open to me than others, and I’m grateful to those that were.
And for those that weren’t, I completely understand. Morally, this whole business of representation and who is telling whose story is a complicated thing, and I still don’t quite know how to reconcile that as a nonfiction filmmaker. I’m still learning. When I was making Hotel 22, my primary goal was to be a filmmaker that effectively showed the world as I witnessed it. As I evolve into my filmmaking, I’m sure my position as a filmmaker between the lens, the screen, and the space and people I film with will change.
6. In the beginning of the film, the bus driver warns the homeless about consequences, and in the middle, a man goes on a bigoted, racial tirade. The film is silent throughout, but those thoughts of indifference are quite loud—what does those scenes say about our American attitude toward the downtrodden?
The ironic thing is there are no consequences to his bigotry. He simply says aloud what most of America is thinking (and quietly exercising through policies and media representations that are hostile to the homeless, to minorities, to women etc). I think it’s pretty clear what the American attitude toward race and class are. At the same time, as someone who lives in America by choice, there’s a lot to be said about how inclusive and open American cities can be too. But I suspect if I came from a different background, my experience would be much different.
7. Hotel 22 is essentially a sad, cinematic metaphor of the American dream—a society lusting for material wealth with an ever-growing inequality problem. How do you interpret your film and are there room for multiple interpretations?
I think that’s a really nice way to put it. I think the film can be seen through a social justice lens and function as a critique of the American dream. But I’m also expanding Hotel 22 into a longer version that will show how the 22 bus loops between opposite ends of the route throughout the day and night, and its homeless inhabitants have to repeatedly board and de-board the bus in order to survive the night.
I hope this expansion will operate on a more literary level – less about the inequality of the times, and more broadly about a certain vision of the human condition: an endlessly transient existence, without an end in sight. I’m curious to see how what’s conveyed through the longer version will compare with its shorter self.
8. It’s been all about immigration in American politics as of late. We both have a recent immigrant background—would you consider navigating those spaces as well?
Definitely. I’ve been commissioned to work on a short documentary about trailer parks that are about to be shut down in Palo Alto, and most of the residents are immigrants from Mexico trying to make a life here.
9. What are you working on next and what’s the inspiration behind it? Any feature film in the near future?
I’m working on expanding Hotel 22 into a longer film, which I’ve talked about, and also developing my first feature-length documentary – which I’m hoping will be an experiential, Michael Glawogger-style comparison of the lives of stray dogs around the world. Abandoned or street dogs are the ultimate example of a disposable class of being, and how a society treats them is very telling of that society.
For example, in most developed countries they barely exist. I suspect that complete absence has nothing to do with compassion but more to do with what it means to live in a civilization of convenience. In the countries where they are allowed to exist, I want to embody their perspective as best as I can. It will be tough to figure out how to technically pull this off, but I’m excited about it if I can make it happen…
10. What are three things budding filmmakers should take away when they’re out studying films?
For me, I think it would be: watch as many films from as many countries and eras as possible, develop your taste, and with each film you make try to get closer to your evolving taste.