Approximately 18,000 San Franciscans live in single-room occupancy hotels in the city, the vast majority of them (73 percent) in Chinatown. The buildings, with their small living quarters, community bathrooms and community kitchens, are some of the city’s few remaining remnants of affordable housing.
A new documentary short, Home Is a Hotel, tells the story of a mother and daughter who share an 8×10′ SRO unit in a private, for-profit building in Chinatown. Directed by local filmmakers Todd Sills and Kevin Wong, the film is currently streaming as part of the PBS Online Film Festival, an annual three-week showcase of short films.
The film, which is shot entirely in black and white, tells the story of Huan Di and her daughter Jessica, who share cramped kitchens with several neighbors amid stacked rooms of bunk beds and tight spaces. It captures the desire, and hope, of having more than just a room.
Two-thirds of San Francisco’s SRO units are privately owned, says the film’s co-producer, Sasha Hauswald, who worked in the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development for six years. Compared to nonprofit-owned units, private SROs tend to be more expensive and harder to access; in the time since Home Is a Hotel was filmed, rental prices have gone up 45 percent.
“The SRO population is pretty tough to try and capture as the subject of a documentary,” thanks to transient residents and subpar buildings, explained Sills. “For those reasons, it makes the story all the more important to be told.”
After months of research and interviews, they finally found a subject they felt was emblematic of the SRO population. “Huan Di is an exceptionally open and articulate person, and she was really great to work with,” said Hauswald.
In the film, Huan Di is candid about the stresses of her and her daughter’s situation. “Living in a place like this … You see how it is. It’s small. It’s dirty. There is one bathroom for everyone on this floor. I am left facing these four walls every day. It changes a person.”
Huan Di and Jessica’s room was so small that Sills and Wong had to strip down their gear to just a camera and a microphone. “We had to get a little bit creative in terms of [giving] the viewers a sense of the space to share Huan Di’s story,” Sills explained.
Nonetheless, the production team wanted to focus “not [on] highlighting the story of slumlords being bad people,” but on the lives and challenges of SRO residents, Hauswald explained. Depending on how things go, they’re considering turning the story into a feature-length film.
So far, Home Is a Hotel has been a success. After winning the Loni Ding award at the 2016 CAAM Fest, it was chosen as one of two films to be submitted for the PBS Online Film Festival, ultimately winning a slot.
Along with 24 other films, it can be seen on PBS’ website, app and YouTube page until July 29th. Viewers can vote for the best film of the festival, which will be announced on August 1st; Home Is a Hotel is currently in fifth place.