Not About Royalty

Michael Fox August 6, 2008

When Prince Charles and Camilla visited San Francisco in 2005, one of their most publicized outings was an hour-long stop at the Empress Hotel. The building had been converted just a year earlier into a residence hotel for homeless people, and was the pride of the city’s Direct Access to Housing program. As soon as the royals and the TV crews left the Tenderloin, of course, the spotlight drifted off the Empress. So much the better for esteemed S.F. documentary makers Allie Light and Irving Saraf, who subsequently began filming a portion of the hotel’s 90 residents.

"We went into it with a lot of naivete," Light recalls, a surprising admission for veteran filmmakers whose subjects have included mental illness (Dialogues with Madwomen) and convicted killers (Blind Spot: Murder by Women). "I believed entirely what we were told," by the residents, Light says, "how happy they were to have a place to live, and how much they were trying to get their life together. [One tenant named] Jeffrey is very verbal and clear about who he is and was. And then we see him out on the street selling a voucher from his therapist. They reveal themselves."

"I think that all but three of our main subjects are drug addicts," says Saraf, a note of sadness in his voice. "They say they are recovering but they’re not. They are trying, but it’s not an easy thing to give up." The duo envisioned Empress Hotel as a social-issue piece when they started shooting, but it’s likely that character development will trump any agenda. Their extensive body of work—highlighted by In the Shadow of the Stars, the 1992 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature—is distinguished by an empathy for people as much as a passion for causes.

Light and Saraf expect to finish Empress Hotel next month, then begin submitting to festivals. Per their usual modus operandi, they don’t have a TV deal in place. "We make films we like, and then we send them to the world on spec," Saraf explains with a rueful chuckle. The doc does include a brief appearance by our local royalty, but it seems a bit of a long shot that Mayor Newsom’s visage will fuel a bidding war.

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