Interview with Laura Waters Hinson by Jamie Richardson
What was it that drew you to the story of Sheila White?
As a professor of film at American University, I direct the Community Voice Lab, which produces documentary films that capture the voices of community storytellers too often unseen and unheard. The creative ethos of Community Voice is that of collaboration, rather than extraction, in which our filmmakers and local storytellers work together to tell stories of hope, resilience and determination for the common good. I have also been a resident of the District of Columbia for nearly two decades, and witnessed the homelessness crisis expand around me as the city experienced unprecedented levels of development in a very short period. The pandemic only exacerbated these issues.
Through the Community Voice Lab, I partnered with Producer Bryan Bello, a PhD candidate in the School of Communication at American University with a passion for citizen journalism. Bryan co-founded the nation’s first homeless filmmaking cooperative at Street Sense Media, of which Sheila White was a member. Street Reporter began as a “meta” story: our production team followed a group of journalist-filmmakers reporting on the story of “tent city” for the local street newspaper.
After months of filming with the reporting team, I realized that Sheila’s story was the one I needed to tell. Sheila was on a clear journey to overcome the obstacles in her life and to achieve her dream of becoming a photojournalist by going back to school at the age of 59. I felt that her story could bring hope to people facing similar challenges, while also breaking down the tired stereotypes many people have about those experiencing homelessness.
Sheila was on a clear journey to overcome the obstacles in her life and to achieve her dream of becoming a photojournalist by going back to school at the age of 59.
The whole production was different, it was slow-moving and subtle, this genre is a step away from the bread and butter loud flashing images of destitute people and loud crashing music. What was your inspiration for this approach?
Throughout my career, I have directed films about women who make extraordinary choices. I am fascinated by women exercising agency in the world, despite setbacks, challenges and even trauma, to establish a better future. My films have portrayed female survivors of war, genocide, and homelessness who have transformed into entrepreneurs, activists, and artists. I am drawn to stories that are character-based and reflectively paced as my intention is to immerse viewers into my subjects’ lives with the hope of changing their perspective. I want my audience to have an intimate, visceral experience and to connect with the quiet yet universal themes of hope, perseverance and reconciliation. This approach usually does not lend itself to “loud flashing images of destitute people” as your question mentioned. I find that type of filmmaking is often more alienating, rather than empathy-building, to the viewer.
I am drawn to stories that are character-based and reflectively paced as my intention is to immerse viewers into my subjects’ lives with the hope of changing their perspective.
What, for you was the most poignant moment in the film?
Without giving too much away, the most poignant moment in the film for me is the scene at the end when Sheila is framing her favorite black and white photograph in her new apartment. Her pride over who she had become and what she’d achieved after eight years of homelessness was incredibly meaningful for me. To witness her return to her own humanity after feeling dehumanized for so many years always brings tears to my eyes.
To witness her return to her own humanity after feeling dehumanized for so many years always brings tears to my eyes.
Tell us about your production team, how you brought them together and what attributes you looked for in the individuals?
I wrote a bit about how the project came together in the first question, but I want to emphasize that this film was a collaboration with the reporters at Street Sense Media that has continued into the festival and outreach phase of the film. In fact, I’m flying with Sheila next week to Telluride, CO for the Original Thinkers Festival to show the film and for Sheila to discuss local solutions to homelessness.
My production team was made up of my long-time film collaborator, Kasey Kirby, who served as the primary cinematographer for the film. I also worked with two incredible editors, Dan Sadowsky and Richard Yeagley, who brought immense talent to a very hard edit. Finally, I incorporated about eight of my film graduate students from American University into the production and outreach campaign. I love to have students work alongside me in various production roles to give them real-world learning experiences. Finally, Sheila and Reggie, the two primary subjects of the film, contributed their own video reporting and photography to the film and are serving as impact producers on the film’s release. I have loved working with this team.