Aug 16, 2023
Home Is a Hotel, a documentary focusing on residents of San Francisco Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels that makes its world premiere at the Festival on Sat., April 22, takes its inspiration from a 2015 short film of the same name. Kevin Duncan Wong and Todd Sills, two of the feature’s three directors (the third is Kar Yin Tham) helmed the short as members of a local film cooperative, following a single resident and her daughter, recent immigrants from China. It became an award winner on the festival circuit and through it, Wong and Sills became cognizant that they were onto a bigger story.
“After we screened at CAAMFest, my aunt came to me—we had a woman, Sāam Yī, who took care of my grandpa in the last years of his life—and she was like, ‘You know Sāam Yī lives in an SRO,” Wong remembers during a Zoom call with his partners and SFFILM.
“When people saw the film, the response was, ‘I didn’t know that existed’ or they had some story about some person who was important to them who had or still lived in that kind of housing It seemed like there was this undercurrent; there’s so many people in the city that make it run and make it is what it is that are only able to live here because of this kind of housing.”
“Those responses, not knowing that SROs existed, not knowing what kind of housing stock it was, not knowing about the communities that lived there. It made us feel like there was more work to do,” adds Sills.
What is Home is a Hotel About?
The SROs are residential hotels with communal bathrooms and kitchens, and living quarters that are small for a single person let alone the families they often house. Home Is a Hotel focuses on a cross-section of tenants at SROs found throughout the city. Among the people who open their lives to the filmmakers’ lens are an African American artist, a pair of recovering addicts co-parenting their young son, an elderly Latina immigrant who has lived a life of music, and a mother raising a small child while searching the city for an older daughter lost to the streets.
Wong and Sills began the new project in 2016, originally developing around 15 characters, but they lost a few undocumented participants who became fearful for their status after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. A few others potential subjects stepped away for one reason or another. Then there were those that had compelling stories but those tales were from their pasts. What the filmmakers were looking for were people with an eye toward the future.
“We were asking folks, ‘What are your hopes and dreams? What do you imagine?’” Wong says. “One of the questions we had on our list was ‘Where do you see yourself in five years, where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ Some folks had something to say about that, and conversely, some were like, ‘I don’t think about this. I don’t try to plan that far ahead because it’s like setting myself up for disappointment.’ That was an interesting answer to the question but they knew where they wanted to go, even if they didn’t have a timeline for when they might get there.”
Originally, and Wong admits, probably naively, the filmmakers thought the feature would take two or three years to complete. Tham joined the film as a translator at the beginning before coming on board as a producer in 2017. Then when Sills accepted a teaching job in Vientiane, Laos, she became one of the documentary’s directors.
How did the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect the Filmmakers?
The onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020 presented the production with a new complication. It changed the course of the lives of some of the people in the film and severely impacted the Tenderloin, where so many SROs are but it also allowed the filmmakers to take some time to look at what they’d shot. They had received some smaller grants but in cutting a new trailer and pulling together a new work sample, they were able to unlock support from bigger organizations, including SFFILM, where Wong and Tham became 2022 FilmHouse residents.
“I felt (the residency) was really helpful on two levels,” says Tham. “One is that sense of community in terms of being able to discuss a project with other makers. And also, because of that program, in some ways, it gave us momentum. That was when we started to look at post in terms of editing, so having that group over the program really helped us structure how we wanted to get feedback, and then really relying on the FilmHouse editing suite to meet and discuss cuts.”
“The other thing I really appreciated was that it was mix of filmmaker from all different disciplines and tastes,” Wong adds. “When I was in the 2016 BAVC fellowship, that was all nonfiction makers. That was great, but it was from a very specific lens. Once we got into the editing phase with this, I think having a diversity of perspectives on the craft was really helpful in finding the film.”
What inspired the creation of Home is a Hotel
One of the things that animated the filmmakers to make Home Is a Hotel is the state of housing in San Francisco. The 2022 homeless census estimated nearly 8,000 residents are unhoused. When Wong and Sills embarked on the documentary in 2016, the already high price of housing was reaching the stratosphere. Those living in SROS are keeping a roof over their heads but oftentimes just barely.
“What folks do when housing is expensive, they make do with less than they would like, but SROs are literally the smallest you can go, there’s nowhere left to go. This is really the bottom before you’re unsheltered.” Wong says. “I think we sort of dive into that, make that more visible, bring folks into the experience of that in a way that helps them understand how dire the situation is…I feel like we discover how big of an impact having decent, stable housing can be in seeing that in the lives of characters that we follow…It’s not hopeless. There is a solution. It really is a question of the will to put the resources there.”
“I think there’s enough statistics, enough characterization of what’s going on from a numbers perspective,” adds Tham. “I think what we’re really trying to show is the real lived experience perspective, and hopefully, people can enter into this world with more empathy.”
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
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