Director Susanne Suffredin on Making a Film about Homelessness

written by Emanuel Cavallaro
July 15, 2013

As many of you may already be aware, at our 2013 National Conference on Ending homelessness, we will be screening not one, but two documentaries. You may have already heard of one of them, "The Invisible War." I've blogged about it before, and it's already opened in limited release. You probably haven't heard of the other film we'll be screening yet, "@home," but you might have heard of the man it's about, social media advocate for the homeless Mark Horvath of Invisible People. If you're attending the conference, don't miss the screening on Monday, July 22, at 8 p.m.

I recently spoke with Susanne Suffredin, the the director of the documentary, about the upcoming screening, the difficulty of making a documentary about homelessness, and about Horvath's work. Check out what she had to say after the clip  from the documentary below.

I had the chance to watch the movie not long ago, and I have to say it’s very compelling, and very persuasive. I’m curious how long has this film been in development and what stage it’s in? Will our conference attendees be seeing the final cut of the film?

Susanne Suffredin: It’s been three years since we first started filming @home, and I’m proud to announce the near completion of our film. We are in the final leg of the post-production process, doing everything we need to prepare the film for release and to share it with the world. The cut the conference attendees will be watching will be a picture lock, so all content is pretty much final. We are still taking care of the technical details required to broadcast the film, but that will all be set by the end of summer.

A good deal of your film deals with the life of Mark Horvath, who many in the homeless assistance field are familiar with as a sort of blogger, multimedia advocate. Beyond his work as an advocate, his life is pretty fascinating. I’m curious how you met Mark and what made you want to follow him for the documentary?

Susanne Suffredin: Michael Hoffman, a colleague and social media expert himself, met Mark at a conference. He came back to Danny Alpert at Kindling Group and said we should make a film about this guy. The start was that simple. Kindling Group was able to secure some production funds and I was brought on as director.

Throughout your film, you chronicle Mark’s work as an advocate. You show him interviewing people on video for his blog Invisible people. It’s sort of sensitive filming people who are homeless. I know from experience that not everyone is willing or happy to share their misfortunes with an audience. Was that ever an issue for you, and did you notice anything Mark was doing that showed you how he was so good at it?

Susanne Suffredin: There’s a difference between coaxing someone to share their story if they’re willing but maybe a little hesitant and forcing yourself on someone who is clearly not in a place where they want to talk. During filming, there were people who even just seeing our camera got upset, feeling that we might expose them in a way that could be harmful for them. In those situations we immediately put the camera down and reassured them that we would not use their image.

Those moments could be upsetting, because last thing I wanted to do was to add to their stress. So making sure it’s OK to film before the camera shows up is the first thing we do. Once everyone is comfortable with that, the most important thing is frank conversations, and giving our subjects the respect and consideration they deserve. It’s just that simple, talking to them the same way you would want someone to talk to you. I also observed that for people who have to carry the difficulties of their situation in their heads all day long, sitting down and really getting to talk about it, sometimes with humor, and certainly with emotion, was actually a positive experience for them.

In addition to following Mark’s work and his interviews with people around the country experiencing homelessness, a lot of this documentary has to do with the policy side. You have some pretty in depth interviews with a lot of experts. I was curious if it was at all hard to find that balance between the inherent drama of Mark’s work and the policy side of homelessness?

Susanne Suffredin: That’s a great question, and in my mind the balance you articulate is the one that any good documentary needs to be effective. As both the editor and director, my job is to balance those two pieces so that no one side causes you to lose the focus of the whole. Our films are observational in nature and verité-driven, allowing the story to emerge out of real-life experiences. But, those moments sometimes need context, and the expert voices we chose help to do that. We lead with the observational scenes and make sure that there’s only just enough expert voices to make it coherent. It’s a lot of hours of viewing the cut over and over to make sure that balance feels right. The goal is a compelling film that leaves the viewer wanting more. Knowing that we planted some seeds on the issue, the hope is that people will be motivated to find out more about what they’ve just seen.

While I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly you were going to choose to end it. Documentaries can be tricky that way, since subject matter doesn’t always present a clear narrative path to an ending. You chose to end with a single interview with a homeless man who was just talking about his situation. The interview begins almost in a matter-of-fact way, then develops into something that’s very moving and very powerful. I was curious how you knew that was the end of the film. Why that man? Do you know what happened to him?

Susanne Suffredin: Ending with Robert’s interview was something I’d felt strongly about for some time. We were not with Mark when he filmed it but when I watched I felt it was one of his most powerful interviews, exactly for the way it starts — it’s very matter-of-fact, and then just leaves you in awe at the power and beauty of Robert’s words. When he said, “If anybody’s listening…,” that got me, because the whole film is about learning to listen. For him to remind us at the end of that, I knew it was the last thing I wanted to leave in viewers’ minds. Robert was in the tent city in Sacramento that was part of Safe Ground. I don’t know specifically what happened to him, but I hope that it’s good news and that he is in permanent housing.

What are your hopes for the future of @home?

Susanne Suffredin: We hope for a large audience for @home. We've been applying to festivals and recently submitted the film to PBS’s POV, a great fit for the film if we're accepted. We're also looking into other broadcast outlets as well. We also hope to raise the funds for an extensive outreach campaign that includes the development of a game for change and community screenings throughout the country.