“Hotel 22” | Interview with Elizabeth Lo

| February 26, 2015

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Beneath the veneer of shiny Apple computers and the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, there is a darker side to the Bay Area that involves skyrocketing housing prices and a growing homeless population. Elizabeth Lo’s viscerally powerful short documentary Hotel 22 examines this divide by taking her camera onboard the 22 bus, which runs from Palo Alto to San Jose. Because it’s the only bus line in the area that runs 24 hours, the 22 becomes a temporary shelter for the local homeless community at night.

We reached out to Elizabeth via email to discuss the relevance and impact of her film.

A passenger on the 22 bus.

A passenger on the Hotel 22.

Hi Elizabeth! Here we are again for your latest film. For our readers that don’t know you, please tell them a bit about yourself.

I’m a nonfiction filmmaker currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University. Prior to graduate school, I wrote and co-produced for the documentary series Our America with Lisa Ling. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and received my B.F.A. in English Literature and Film from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.

I was thoroughly floored by Hotel 22. Tell us about it.

Hotel 22 charts the overnight transformation of a Silicon Valley city bus into an unofficial shelter for the homeless. As the [Line 22] bus hurtles through one of the richest parts of the world, its story is a mirror to the discord and disparity of the world we live in.

A passenger falls asleep on the 22 line.

A passenger falls asleep on the 22 line.

 

What put the 22 line on your radar?

I was interested in making a film that took place entirely on a bus because I was intrigued by the idea of buses as these socially dynamic spaces that can reveal something about society. And then I heard and read about the 22 line while at Stanford. When I rode it, I felt it needed to be a film because written words about the “Hotel 22” phenomenon in the news didn’t fully capture what I saw and experienced. I wanted to make a film that could convey just a glimpse of what a night on this bus might feel like. To me, the world on this bus is a microcosm of the profound inequities and injustices within the Bay Area and Silicon Valley – an area that many of us consider to be progressive and well-off.

Passengers at a stop for the 22 bus.

Passengers at a stop for the 22 bus.

Because I grew up in East San Jose, my family actually took the 22 bus often, but it was generally just to get to and from Eastridge Mall in San Jose. However, I’m not sure how much the bus line has changed since the 1990s. How much do you know about the history of the 22 line.

I don’t know too much about the 22’s history beyond its use as a homeless shelter at night. I know that, through word-of-mouth, it’s been a local “secret” among homeless people for years, and has functioned as an unofficial haven from sleeping on the streets at night for a lot of people who find themselves unable to afford the skyrocketing rent in the Bay Area. I remember asking people why they decide to stay rather than move away, and a lot of the elderly people who have been on the waiting list for public housing for years simply answered, “This is where I grew up. Why would I leave?” The fact that these elderly folks are relegated to sleeping on a bus because of being out-priced by the market forces that have been shaping the Bay Area is heartbreaking and disturbing.

How many nights did you shoot?

I shot six nights on the bus, but rode the bus many weeks before actual shooting.

A nighttime still from "Hotel 22."

A nighttime still from Hotel 22.

Did you have to persuade subjects to let you film them? 

At first, my presence on the bus was unwelcome, understandably. This was a public space that had been turned into an intensely private one. I remember it was very tough at first. People would tease me and play with the camera, and I don’t know if that was because I was a girl or what, but I knew that wasn’t the kind of film I wanted to make. So I changed the way I was carrying myself, I took myself more seriously, and I think people responded to that. And after riding the bus often enough, and getting to know the bus drivers, the guards, and some of the homeless people who were regulars, people got used to me and allowed me to film them. Of course, there were some people who didn’t want to be filmed, so I didn’t film them.

A prospective passenger sleeps on a bench.

A prospective passenger sleeps on a bench.

The most shocking scene of the film involves a racist explosion. It also give us (perhaps) the film’s most iconic image. Can you tell us what exactly happened that night?

I was filming with Joseph, the man in the wheelchair, that night. Then a drunken commuter (the man who yells the racial slurs) stumbles onto the bus. First he starts yelling at me, then moves on to pick fights with the other passengers on the bus. What amazes me about this scene is that even though it was very clear I was filming, he completely forgets the presence of the camera and reveals his most bigoted thoughts. This happened a lot on the bus. This is a horrible scene, but for me, it’s also a testament to the power of nonfiction to capture people in unselfconscious moments, and to reveal the very real and dark dynamics about our society today.

You went for an observational mode; did you find that people onboard wanted to talk to you or the camera?

People onboard did talk to me and Chris Giamo – my fellow M.F.A. grad [student] who was crewing with me – quite a bit. Some of them couldn’t tell their children they were homeless because they were too ashamed, or didn’t want to be a burden to the next generation. Some had been on the waiting list for public housing for years, and had been riding the bus every night since then. Just from filming on the bus for a week, I was already drained emotionally, physically and mentally. I cannot begin to imagine what years of sleep deprivation does to a person. Hearing these stories made me feel angry and helpless. A positive thing that has come out of this film is that different Silicon Valley organizations have contacted me, and I’m working with them so that Hotel 22 can be a catalyst for discussion around homelessness, transportation, and affordable housing.

Few other films have made me feel so absolutely present in film space. It kind of reminds me of Coppola saying that Apocalypse Now was not “about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.” The same may be said for this film: it’s not about the 22 bus, but rather makes you feel like you’re a tenant. Can you talk to us about this?

My goals for this film were fairly modest. I knew I couldn’t unpack all the economic factors that lead to the “Hotel 22” phenomenon, or do justice to all the life stories that inhabited this bus within a short or even a feature. So I decided the most effective way to convey what I felt was important about this story was to simply put viewers in the riders’ shoes for just a night – to glimpse what a night of being relegated to a rumbling bus for sleep might feel like. With Hotel 22, I hoped to give primacy to immersion over information; I wanted to convey the experience of finding refuge on the 22 without resorting to the manipulation of individuals’ biographies or sentiments to tell [their] story. While I was sacrificing access to the interior worlds of the riders and drivers by eschewing interviews, I hoped that a less mediated portrayal of a night on this bus would lend itself to a film that gained power through simplicity and directness. Rather than telling audiences what the passengers might be thinking or feeling, I hoped that silence would encourage viewers to imagine it, and in doing that, engage in the act of empathy through film-watching.

The 22 bus at night.

The 22 bus at night.

There’s an absurdity to the film, and I don’t mean that to be snarky. For instance, the pre-recorded voice asking passengers to turn off cell phones, or a bus that wasn’t built to be a temporary cot. Herzog once said that Even Dwarfs Started Small was about a world that was not designed for the film’s little people. In many ways, this is the Hotel 22.

Yeah, definitely there’s a mismatch. After all, this is a public bus that’s meant to be used by commuters to get from Palo Alto to San Jose – not Palo Alto [to] San Jose and back again throughout the night. But instead, because of the market forces and public failings around it, the bus has become a safety net for people who use it to survive, rather than commute.

That last image is haunting. What’s your take on the day/night duality of the 22 bus? What does it say about society at large?

I was interested by the dual life of the 22 bus. By day it’s a regular city bus, but by night it takes on this much darker identity.

What lessons did you learn from your previous film (Last Stop in Santa Rosa) that applied to Hotel 22?

Both Hotel 22 and Last Stop in Santa Rosa are about groups of beings who are treated as second-class citizens, and questioning that. Now that you mention it, it’s cool to see this linkage between these films because for me, expanding our circles of empathy beyond our own culture, class, and even species is the ultimate goal of my filmmaking. But stylistically, they’re different in that I decided I no longer wanted to use voice-over in the way I did in Last Stop in Santa Rosa. Over the year [of] being exposed to different types of filmmaking, I’ve developed an almost religious belief that things about the world can mostly be revealed through the surfaces of what takes place in it, and viewers don’t need words to describe them. They can see power dynamics, pain, or beauty for themselves. I don’t think I’ve reached this goal yet, and I want to continue to push myself to make films that bring me closer to this ideal.

Elizabeth Lo, director of "Hotel 22."

Elizabeth Lo, director of Hotel 22.

Tell us about making this film at Stanford. What’s it like to show rough cuts to your professors and peers?

Stanford has been integral to making this film. It would have been a very different film without the support and critique of my professors and peers. Showing cuts can be daunting and also inspiring. The brutal honesty of our professors to always push us to make a better film is something I really value.

Advice to budding filmmakers?

Watch a lot of films and read film theory. Find out where the most exciting films are being made or showcased, and go check them out. Keep making films that bring you closer to the ideals that you’re inspired by.

 

Elizabeth Lo is an M.F.A. candidate in the documentary film program at Stanford University. She is now in production for her next documentary short.

Follow her on Twitter: @lizbklo.

Like Hotel 22 on Facebook: www.facebook.com/hotel22film

Head to Elizabeth’s website for more info: www.elizabeth-lo.com

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