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In Eight Minutes, 'Hotel 22' Will Change the Way You Think About Homelessness in the Bay Area

Stanford's Elizabeth Lo makes her Sundance debut with a short film about the men and women of Silicon Valley's Line 22 bus, which becomes an unofficial homeless shelter every night.

A still from 'Hotel 22'

 A still from 'Hotel 22'

 

Culture editor Annie Tittiger is spending the week reporting from Sundance. Check back for daily updates on the festival as well as Bay Area directors, stars, and more.

 

It may only be eight minutes long, but Elizabeth Lo’s short documentary Hotel 22 is positively grueling. Filmed over one night aboard the Line 22 bus—which runs from San Jose to Palo Alto, and which many of the area’s homeless people use as a de-facto shelter, riding it back and forth several times during the night, hence the nickname "hotel 22"—is a tender, gripping window into a phenomenon many viewers have likely never heard of. Developed inside Stanford’s film production graduate program, it aired at Sundance this weekend, but is now available to view online as part of the New York Times' Op-Docs series. Here, Lo, a first-time filmmaker, talks about how she found the subject and the rigors of filming.

How did you find Line 22?
As a lot of documentarians will tell you, I found this story through the news. The San Jose Mercury News had done some small articles about it. And after reading those, I decided to go ride on it. And just the first night, experiencing that bus was so shocking. It was not something you could imagine from just reading an article. It needed to be a film.

What brings people to the bus?
The population of bus passengers skews toward single men and the elderly. It's particularly difficult for single men to get public housing, so some of them have been on the public housing waitlist for six years. And during those six years, obviosuly unable to afford the rent the skyrocketing rents in the area, they just are kind of relegated to this bus, which isn’t free. It’s $70 for a monthly pass, which is kind of a bargain for them versus paying rent. It’s their only survival option, other than sleeping on the streets.

What’s the ride like?
It’s a 24-hour route and it’s the longest uninterrupted two-hour ride between Palo Alto and San Jose. So every two hours they need to get off the bus, and get back on another bus going to Palo Alto. I filmed this over the course of the week. And even just that week was so grueling, emotionally and psychically—because of the verbal assaults that go on, the scuffles. The intensity of all these people who are sleep-deprived with lots of needs crammed into this tiny space at night. Of course you’re going to have tension. I was exhausted after a week, but I imagined what if I was doing this for years. What would that do to you?

What was it like to film on the bus?
The cameras our school provides us with are these huge Sony S5 cameras, which are hugely conspicuous. And I was filming on the bus, but I still wanted it to be watchable. So I had to bring this huge tripod and sandbags, I think I was getting in everyone’s way. At first, people were resistant—which is completely understandable—whether because they didn’t want to be on camera or because they thought it was invasive. But slowly, I befriended the homeless riders, as well as the drivers, who would come to my defense when people became very irate with me. Eventually, it was like I became part of this bus.

Why did this appeal to you as a short film?
Well, I do want to make the hour-long version of this film—I think it’d be beautiful and immersive and you’d really feel the length of this ride. I shot 30 hours of footage, and you have to sacrifice a lot to turn that into an 8-minute short. But one of the benefits of short film is that you can put it online, like the Times did with this, and thus you can reach a much broader audience. It’s that kind of exposure that’s really exciting to me because it will reach a broader international and national audience that doesn’t necessarily go to Sundance.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
Right now, I’m potentially making a short film that's almost going to be like a sequel to Hotel 22 about 250 Kearny—the hotel they’ve converted into studio apartments for homeless veterans. They’re going to provide apartments for 130 homeless veterans. One of the people I was closest with on the 22 bus was a veteran from the Vietnam War who had been through a lot. He was the sweetest guy ever, and getting to know his story and wondering what happens to people like him led me to make this new film, about people who are lucky enough to find housing through the city. So I’m excited to explore that.

 

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