Elizabeth Lo is redefining what it means to examine social space

We interviewed Elizabeth Lo in 2017, before the birth and during the early stages of what you know now as Minute.

Even by then she had built a name for herself as an astute documentary filmmaker thanks to her brutally honest and modest filmmaking style. The one that caught our eye was the Silicon Valley based ‘Hotel 22’. A fly-on-the-wall documentary which examines an eery portable shelter for the homeless: The San Fran, 22 bus route.

Check out our interview with the award-winning filmmaker below and find out more about her by visiting www.elizabeth-lo.com

“Public transportation always struck me as one of these spaces that may reveal something about our social fabric because they are places where classes and races and individuals collide within tight spaces.”

Q: Firstly, just a little introduction for those that may be new to your work, such as your history, name and what you do?

EL: My name is Elizabeth Lo and I am a documentary filmmaker. I grew up in Hong Kong and discovered documentaries while studying film as an undergraduate at NYU. I worked in documentary production for several years before returning to graduate school at Stanford to pursue an MFA in documentary film, where I made Hotel 22. Since then I have been freelance directing.

Q: As a non-fiction filmmaker, what drew you to documenting the bus line 22 in Silicon Valley? And how much did you know about the homeless problem within the area prior to filming?

EL: As a filmmaker, I was interested in making a nonfiction film that would not require exposition through interview or voice-over. I wanted to find a space that would be able to tell a story on its own. Having lived in New York, public transportation always struck me as one of these spaces that may reveal something about our social fabric because they are places where classes and races and individuals collide within tight spaces. I knew I wanted to make a film inside a bus, but it was only when I heard about and researched the "Hotel 22" phenomenon near where I was living in Palo Alto that I became introduced to the depth of the homelessness problem in the Bay Area.

Q: The film has quite a voyeuristic approach and lets things play out uninterrupted; what attracted you to document ‘Hotel 22’ in this style and was it ever an option to have an interview style interaction with any of the passengers on camera?

EL: People sometimes approached me to tell their stories and I would record it - the stories were heart-wrenching: some were veterans, some were elderly people whose children didn't know they were homeless, some had been on the waitlist for public housing for six years with no luck...but from the outset I knew that I didn't want to try to portray anyone's life story within a short film because it would be an impossible task, and would not do justice to their lives. So instead I was more interested in examining the bus as a social space, and I knew this modest goal was more achievable. So often in documentaries we're asked to immediately empathise with the subjects of the story by them simply telling us about their lives. To me, that would have been an ineffective approach for this film. I thought that letting viewers imagine what these people are going through rather than be told who and what and why these people are would be more impactful. 

Still from ‘Hotel 22’

Still from ‘Hotel 22’

Q: Many people can watch documentaries and have the assumption that you simply pick up a camera and start rolling – with that being said, how much research and planning goes into your films prior to the shoot?

EL: I rode the bus for about a month prior to shooting - to see how the dynamics would shift according to the day of the week, to see how people would react to different sizes of cameras, how they would react to me. I got to know some of the bus drivers, security guards, and homeless riders during this period and that helped a lot during actual production. 

Q: How much footage did you manage to capture? Could you elaborate on the process of condensing all the footage into an 8-minute short film.

EL: I captured about 30 hours of footage over 6 nights. Condensing it into 8 minutes was very difficult. Sometimes I dream of making a longer, messier version that would really challenge the viewers' endurance and really channel what being relegated to a bus for sleep night after night might feel like - but it's one of those projects that's on the back burner. 

“some of the moments I captured on film were horrible, but at the same time capturing these moments that I felt were important and revealing about our society is also what I love most about documentary filmmaking.”

Q: What was your favourite and least favourite part of the week-long shoot for Hotel 22?

EL: It was very gruelling and sad - some of the moments I captured on film were horrible, but at the same time capturing these moments that I felt were important and revealing about our society is also what I love most about documentary filmmaking. 

Q: For our Minute viewers that would like to keep up with your work – what can we expect from you in the near future?

EL: I'm hoping to shoot my first feature documentary soon...a film that hopefully will be less controlled by me and totally unfamiliar in the vision it presents. 

 Q: And to finish off; if you weren’t a filmmaker, what career path would you have taken and why?

EL: I would have wanted to open an animal sanctuary, but unfortunately I love filmmaking. I hope one day I can make films that expands our sense of empathy and our conceptions of what "diversity" means in terms of species - not just race, class and gender - in all its varied expressions and perceptions. 

Still from ‘Hotel 22’

Still from ‘Hotel 22’

Written and edited by Regys Badi.

You can watch ‘Hotel 22’ in its entirety with Minute now. Download the app:

iOS: apple.co/2AKdPyq 
GooglePlay: 
goo.gl/Zu3vdF