Fighting for it: Allie Light and Irving Saraf's "Empress Hotel" follows formerly homeless San Franciscans rebuilding their lives. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF52: Light and Saraf's 'Empress Hotel'

David Winks Gray April 13, 2009

Local filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf have collaborated on over a dozen films and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for In the Shadow of the Stars, a backstage look at the performers of the San Francisco Opera. The Emmy-winning Dialogues with Madwomen, another entry on their formidable resume, casts a personal glance at seven women (including Light) who have suffered not only from different forms of "madness," but also at the hands of the patriarchal institutions that tend to smother women along with their ailments. The duo’s latest film Empress Hotel, was only a BART ride away from their Bay Area home. It delves into the lives of the residents at the titular building, a Tenderloin housing facility and part of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Direct Access to Housing program for the recently homeless. The film makes visible an area many city dwellers may only experience in the fringe of their consciousness and provides insight into the lives of the residents within. Roberta Goodman, the manager of the building and a co-producer on the film, maintains an on-screen presence throughout, engaging generously with the residents and filmmakers. screens at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (Sat., April 25, 3:15 p.m., Mon., April 27, 6 p.m., and Wed. April 29, 6:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki). Irving Saraf answered questions about the film by e-mail. Empress Hotel

SF360: Where did the idea for this film originate? Were you approached to make the film, or did you approach Roberta Goodman or the City?

Irving Saraf: We met Roberta at a dinner party and she told us about the newly renovated Empress Hotel for homeless people that she was managing. We thought that there was a possible film there because of the varied backgrounds of the residents and the transformation in their lives once they had permanent housing. Allie and I discussed it further and met with Roberta; we then went to a tenants meeting, introduced ourselves and said that we would like to make the film.

SF360: What was Roberta Goodman’s involvement in the film? I notice that she is listed as a co-producer in the credits.

Saraf: Roberta is the manager of Empress Hotel and a co-producer of the film. She helped select the tenants to be interviewed, secured their releases and alerted us of upcoming events in the hotel. She also worked on fundraising.

SF360: How long were you in production on the film? Did you visit the hotel daily during production, or was it more spread out?

Saraf: Filming was spread over two years, visiting the hotel at various intervals. Andrew Clark did much of the videography, especially most of the night filming. We traveled to the hotel, which is located in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, by BART and carried the camera and microphone in a shopping bag to avoid street attention or theft.

SF360: How do you work as a filmmaking team? Does each person have their own realm or do you collaborate on individual tasks?

Saraf: We collaborate on every stage of production. We prepare interview questions together. Allie does most of the interviewing while I am doing the videography. We discuss which events to film and how to do so, what images are needed and how to obtain them. We edit together and when there is a disagreement we try both versions and almost always agree about which turns out to be the better one. Allie is very good at compressing dialogue to its essence and my talent is in visual continuity and I also do the actual computer editing. All decisions are done jointly.

SF360: The film shows a high degree of trust from your subjects. Was it difficult to gain the trust of the tenants whom you filmed?

Saraf: We gained their trust by visiting the hotel as much as we could, by being genuinely interested in their stories, promising to omit anything they requested and making ourselves vulnerable in order to create some equality on both sides of the camera. Andrew Clark, who did most of the night filming, also has a talent for drawing people out.

SF360: Was there anyone whose story you filmed, but did not make it into the finished film?

Saraf: There were two people whose stories we filmed and who were not included in the film. One at her request—she changed her mind—and one just didn’t work out.

SF360: There are a number of remarkable moments in the film, when you get unexpected moments of honesty and openness from your subjects. I’m thinking of Eddie’s long narrative of his history with violence, the scene where Jeffrey sells a gift certificate at Virgin, or any moment when Sonja is onscreen. How much of this comes down to planning and work, and how much is just chance, being in the right place at the right time?

Saraf: Much of it was being available but also being persistent and getting to know the subjects, and some was due to chance. It is a question of developing a rapport and trust with the subject and choosing people who are good talkers and come across well on camera. Casting is as important in a documentary as it is in a fiction film.

SF360: Have you been back to visit the residents recently? I’d love to hear any update on how they have been doing since the filming.

Saraf: We visited a couple of times. Roberta, of course, sees them all the time. Jeffrey left and went to live with his girl friend and we don’t know how he is doing. Paul Martell left to live with family in New York State. He calls Roberta often and seems to be doing well. Rene still lives in independent housing and continues her musical education. Paul Wood moved out and began sleeping in Golden Gate Park. The first time we went looking for him, we learned that he was in jail. We visited him in the park twice and did our last interview there. He was incarcerated again, and when Roberta visited him in jail he was looking forward to his release and inquiring about housing. She has not heard from him since. Eddie lives now in another supportive housing and Roberta is told that he is holding on.

David Winks Gray is a graduate student at SF State and an intern for

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