Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Kevin Duncan Wong of Home is a Hotel Is…

Posted on

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Kevin Duncan Wong of Home is a Hotel Is Helping To Change Our World

The first thing I wish I’d known is how long this project would take. When we started we naively thought we’d only be working on it for like 2 years. It took 6. But at the same time, I think we needed that time. You’re following real life, you need enough time for things to develop. We could have never anticipated some of the things that happen in the film but we had to spend the time building relationships to be there to capture them.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing (your name here).

Kevin Duncan Wong is a Writer, Director and Producer based in the San Francisco By Area. His films have screened at festivals across the country including SFFilm, Austin Film Festival, Big Sky, and New Filmmakers LA and been featured in the Washington Post, PBS and Film Shortage. HOME IS A HOTEL is his feature film debut and was supported by the Sundance institute, The Center for Asian American Media, SFFilm among others.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

People often ask me this and I honestly can’t pinpoint a specific moment when I fell in love with filmmaking. I was always interested in images and telling stories. As a kid, I would draw comics and story books and then when I was in high school, I had a teacher who would let us do our class reports in any format we wanted so a friend of mine and I started filming these stop motion Lego videos explaining things like the water cycle and osmosis. The next year my school started a media arts program and it pretty much took off from there with me going to film school and then getting my first job at Industrial Light and Magic which is the VFX arm of Lucasfilm.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

So in my last year at SF State where I went to school, we had a class where the school would fund two 30-minute documentary projects. Everyone in the class would spend the first semester researching a topic, we’d pitch it at the end of the first semester and then two would be chosen and we’d have a dedicated camera package, edit suite, and equipment to make it. My friend, Martín Rossetti had a film about the treatment of WW2 veterans from the Philippines that I was shooting and he had secured an interview with this lawyer who had done a lot of work on the issue.

So we show up, set everything up and we’re ready to film and I put the tape in the camera backward and it jams. So I’m sweating. I’m really worried that I might have just broken this camera worth like $20,000, this very professional, distinguished attorney is sitting there asking us, a bunch of college kids, “are we almost ready” and I’m trying to communicate to Martín that the tape is stuck without her knowing. He finally figures it out and is trying to stall with her. It was a disaster.

Fortunately, I finally managed to yank the tape out, and put it in the right way and the camera worked fine but the lesson I learned from that is, don’t wait until you show up on set to check your equipment and know how it works and don’t force anything into a slot that it doesn’t want to go into.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

That’s a hard question. My favorite thing about this line of work is that I get to meet new and interesting people every day. I’ve met the guy who invented the fecal transplant, one of the scientists who invented CRISPR. I’ve met the man who’s sometimes called the “Asian MLK”. I meet people with pretty intense and inspiring life stories pretty regularly, the people in my film being some great examples.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

You know for whatever reason I’m not that into heroes so to speak. There are certain people whose work I admire or who I think are really smart and I appreciate their point of view. I admire people like Ira Glass, Erroll Morris or Brett Story for the really interesting questions that they investigate. I admire writers like Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Matthew Desmond for how they contextualize the past and imagine the future. The filmmakers who inspire me are a list too long to print but to throw out some names maybe Chantal Akerman, Wong Kar-Wai, Kelly Reichardt, Luke Lorentzon, Elizabeth Lo, The Maysles Brothers, I could go on. Ask me tomorrow and it will be a different list.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

Of course, leaving things better than I found them is something that I think I’ve always tried to incorporate in my work. The film I’m touring with now is called HOME IS A HOTEL and it’s about 5 people living in this kind of housing in San Francisco called residential hotels or SROs, Single Room Occupancies. It’s quite literally asking people to fit their entire life in a single room, all their belongings, their pets, and their family in just one 80-square-foot room.

And so what’s happened in San Francisco, because housing is so insanely expensive, is these rooms have become a sort of impromptu safety net or housing of last resort for people who can’t afford anywhere else. It’s a mix of new immigrants, people who are getting off the street, and people who just don’t otherwise fit into society. The issue is, San Francisco has started relying on these rooms as part of their strategy to deal with homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, but there hasn’t been much of a pathway for folks to move beyond these rooms.

And so you have people, oftentimes whole families, living in one room, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with everyone else on the floor, for as much as a decade or more in some instances. What we’re trying to do with the film, is not just shed a light on that, but also spotlight how hard they are working just to keep their heads above water, or maybe more literally, a roof over their heads.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

So this project began out of a short film that I made with my Co-Director and Producer Todd Sills. He and I were working together in this horrible corporate video factory at the time, like it was quite literally an assembly line for corporate video, and we’d joined this filmmakers’ co-operative. A friend of a friend approached Todd at one of the co-operative meetings and said that she thought it would be interesting for someone to do a documentary about the situation in the SROs in San Francisco. Her name is Sasha Hauswald, she was working in the mayor’s office of housing at the time and was a producer on that original short and a consulting producer on the film.

So Todd asked me if I wanted to work on the short with him and it was at this moment in 2014 / 2015 when it felt like there was a mood shift in San Francisco. It was like shifting from “Yay, we’ve come out of the 2008 recession” to “oh wow, the rents are getting insane”. And the idea of exploring that from the point of view of the smallest possible space you could get and still have housing was interesting to us so we just shot it without thinking much of it.

We released that film in 2016 and, much to our surprise, the film started doing really well. It got into a bunch of film festival and was winning awards and we ended up having it on PBS’ digital platform as a result. And so we were like “this seems to be resonating with people, how do we expand this?” and the way to do that was we wanted to zoom out. The short focused on a woman and her daughter living in Chinatown which is a very specific experience both as new immigrants and also the community, and we knew that there was a great variety of stories and experiences in SROs around the city and we wanted to show that.

So we started applying for funding and to different fellowships and stuff like that and then I got into this fellowship run by a local organization called BAVC called the National Media Maker Fellowship. That fellowship is sort of prestigious in the non-fiction space and that kind of gave me the confidence boost that like, yeah, I can do this.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of the things that I’m proudest of is how participating in the film has impacted all of the people we follow in it. At the premiere, Jacque ( pronounced “Jackie” ) said that she started doing the film because she wanted people to see what she’d been through, but watching it back, seeing herself go through it and how far she had come over the course of the film, it made her realize for herself how strong she is, that she can accomplish anything. That was really gratifying to hear.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

YES! One of the challenges when it comes to housing is that it’s always a hyper local issue and it’s a lot of small changes that add up to big things but there is no silver bullet. I like to compare it to solving climate change, it doesn’t matter if everyone switched over to electric cars tomorrow if we’re still burning fossil fuels to power those cars. We need to re-imagine our economy from one that is based on extracting resources from the planet, to one that is regenerative of the planet and co-exists with it.

I think we need similar mindset shift when it comes to how we think about housing. Right now the way we think about housing is either as a reward or an investment; we tell children, study hard, get a good job and you can buy a big house. I think that mindset is very much reflected in our housing policy at all levels as well as our attitudes towards folks that are struggling. The thing is, housing isn’t like iPhones, it’s one of the three essential needs. Food, Water, Shelter right? And so if we can shift our understanding of housing from thinking of it as a commodity, to understanding that it is a public good that empowers people, I think that will have broad reaching effects in terms of how we treat it. Everyone understands that society is better off when everyone has access to safe, clean affordable water. Similarly everyone is better off when people who are working minimum wage can afford a decent place to live. Whatever other issues you might care about, from immigration, to climate, to the economy, everyone being able to afford a decent place makes dealing with those other issues less difficult.

Related to that, poverty is so stigmatized in this country and that plays into why it’s hard to create affordable housing. I was talking to someone the other day who told me about their cousin who had recently bought a house near a site where there’s a proposed low-income housing development. Her cousin told her “Look, I feel bad for those people but we’ve put our whole life savings into this house, we can’t afford for the property value to go down”. I think that statement really gets at both sides of the issue. One, the only reason property values would go down if that project is build is because of a certain kind of prejudice. So let’s really take a moment and examine that before we oppose something like an apartment complex or low-income development in our neighborhood. That prejudice is baked into the building code in many places where zoning only permits single family homes.

And second, maybe it’s not good policy for the only way people can enter or maintain their status in the middle class to be perpetuating the legacy of redlining and discriminatory housing policy. I’m not advocating for something radical like the abolition of private property or anything like that, I’m just saying we can look to places like Vienna or Singapore where the society understands that we all have a stake in investing in housing being affordable and that destigmatizes things like social housing.

Lastly, in terms of specific policies, and I always preface this by saying that I’m not a policy expert I’m just repeating what I’ve learned from people who have spent their whole careers studying this, is that it’s always cheaper and more effective to stop someone from losing their housing than to get them re-housed. So things like rental and mortgage assistance programs are so much more cost effective at preventing homelessness in the first place than trying to re-house people that end up on the street. But again, the way the system is built, the most attention goes to the most visible part of the problem which is people who’ve already slipped through the cracks instead of sealing those cracks in the first place.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Haha, I only get 5?

The first thing I wish I’d known is how long this project would take. When we started we naively thought we’d only be working on it for like 2 years. It took 6. But at the same time, I think we needed that time. You’re following real life, you need enough time for things to develop. We could have never anticipated some of the things that happen in the film but we had to spend the time building relationships to be there to capture them.

Number two, don’t waste your time trying to appeal to gatekeepers, find the people who care about what you are doing and work with them. I feel like we spent the first 2–3 years of the project trying to figure out how to convince some theoretical producer or institution to believe in us and swoop in and carry the project along. The irony is, when we finally did start to unlock support from places like CAAM, Sundance etc, it was only because we’d just started doing the work and they could see what we were doing and understood it. Even then, we got the biggest chunk of support from outside of the film industry from a foundation that works to alleviate poverty.

Three, bring a tripod. A lot of this film was shot with just two people running around San Francisco on foot. We’re filming in these tiny rooms, usually the building doesn’t have an elevator, so we didn’t bring a tripod a lot of the time. But there are places where I think the film suffers a little bit because, you’re human, your arm is going to get tired, the camera is going to get shaky. So about halfway through filming I bought this super lightweight compact tripod that fit in my backpack that I could just pull out when I needed it and that made a big difference. I guess the tripod is a metaphor or something?

Four, trust your gut. I think, especially in the beginning with this being my first feature film, I let a lot of people tell me the “right way” to do something when I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do. In the end we didn’t use any of the stuff I did because people told me I should in the film!

And lastly, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to miss stuff, it’s ok and you’ll still have a good movie. I was a lot harder on myself at the beginning when we didn’t get a shot or missed a moment that seemed at the time like it was crucial. It’s documentary, unexpected things are going to happen and you do the best you can. That’s all you can really ask of yourself.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We’re all in this together, what’s the point of being the king of a hill of rubble? All of the most profound experiences I’ve had in my life have come from other people or nature so move towards that and you will find your place and your purpose.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I’ve already mentioned Matthew Desmond who I think is doing great work on poverty and how we think about the economy, I’d add Raj Chetty to that list who has done really great work looking at the intersection of place and opportunity. I’d love it if either of them championed the film and its message.

I’ve also always appreciated the filmmaker Sean Baker and how he’s able to infuse social issues into his films in a way that is natural and compelling. I’d love to work with him in any capacity if I had the opportunity.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

At one low point in this project, another filmmaker friend said to me “Finishing is always worth it” and I believed her at the time but I didn’t realize how it would feel. Anyway, she was right and it’s really the best feeling, to finish a film and have people watch it and respond to it. Don’t let your self doubt stop you, finish. It’s worth it.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on Instagram at @dunkinwong and twitter at @kevdwong. You can follow the film on Instagram and facebook at @homeisahotel and our website where you can find info about upcoming screenings and when it’s released for TV broadcast and home video in 2024.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Kevin Duncan Wong of Home is a Hotel Is… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.