Bus route doubles as lodging for homeless in short documentary

Elizabeth Lo/Courtesy

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An hour before the clock strikes midnight, a group of homeless people — most of them old and disabled — take shelter in Silicon Valley’s Bus 22, which commutes between the affluent cities of San Jose and Palo Alto. For the next eight hours, as the seats and windows become their beds and pillows, Bus 22 will serve as their chance to sleep without enduring the bone-chilling breeze from the Bay and the noise of cars driving along the road.

Elizabeth Lo’s documentary short film “Hotel 22” captures the microcosm of the growing number of homeless, documenting their struggling situation and lack of received sustentation from the government. The Bay Area’s commerce of high-technology is tantamount to the cost of living in the Silicon Valley; boom after boom of increasing median salary average as well as monthly rent. So where do those who can’t afford a roof over their head go? They go to Hotel 22.

Aside from the harsh strain regarding class between the rich and the poor, serious tensions also occur between the homeless people and the regular night commuters. “Hotel 22” doesn’t just shed light on the economic discrepancy in one of the most prominent areas of Northern California, but the short film also elucidates the area’s total inability to access a sense of community.

Throughout the brief span of the film, Lo has managed to reveal an impartial perspective of the adversities of those who find refuge in a midnight bus. She lets the people’s lack of voice and their occasional disputes with one another fill in through the film’s uneasy silence. This approach actually says more than what can be simply seen. The absence of cinematic cosmetics shows the film’s subjects scarred, exhausted and powerless.

Lo, currently an MFA candidate in the Stanford University Documentary Film program, found her intense and forthright voice for documentary while she was an undergraduate at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. “One of the reasons why I like nonfiction filmmaking as a process is because unlike fiction sets, making a documentary doesn’t require a large crew,” Lo told The Daily Californian in an interview. “You can basically do it on your own, and I enjoy the solitary aspect of it. I also don’t particularly like directing people.”

With her film, Lo aspires to give importance to the engagement of the audience because she feels that merely offering them information wouldn’t suffice. “I was sacrificing access to the interior worlds of the riders and drivers by eschewing interviews,” said Lo. “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.”

Her decision to give a bare, raw and forthright perspective allows for a concentration that’s devoid of the rhetoric of melodrama. Lo further states, “I hoped that silence would encourage viewers to imagine it, and in so doing, engage in the act of empathy through film watching.”

“Hotel 22” was screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival that took place from Jan. 22 to Feb. 1. Lo has gotten a lot of positive feedback from the previous audience especially for the climactic scene. “I hope this film can be used as a catalyst for discussion or action,” says Lo. “ For me, expanding our circles of empathy beyond our own culture, class and even species is the ultimate goal of all filmmaking, and (it) is what drives my desire to push formal boundaries.”

“Hotel 22” is not just another story about the downtrodden lives of homeless people. Aside from being thought-provoking, the film also advocates humanistic empathy that — although widely assumed as a trait inherent to all people — is sometimes lost in a community, especially in one that prospers financially. “Adopting new ways of telling stories that are unfamiliar to our own is an important political act,” comments Lo.

She succeeds in doing so. The result is something that would leave the audience not only well-informed, but also more socially aware.

Contact Majick Tadepa at [email protected].