Street Reporter Director Laura Waters Hinson On Homelessness In The US

Director Laura Waters Hinson joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss her film, Street Reporter. The OSCAR qualifying documentary is an intimate portrait of a woman – Sheila White – overcoming homelessness while striving to tell her own story to the world.

How did you come into contact with Sheila White and her story?

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. 

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 a 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. 

What did you hope to uncover by following Sheila’s story?

My hope was to journey alongside a woman who was making incredible decisions to transform her life after eight years of homelessness. I didn’t know how the story would turn out, but I believed in Sheila’s dream of becoming a photojournalist and getting out of the women’s shelter and could tell she was committed. Her dedication to her own transformation inspired me to continue following her story for nearly two years.

What most surprised you in your time spent with Sheila?

One of the most unexpected things that came out of my time spent with Sheila is the friendship we developed that has continued after the film’s production. Sheila and I keep in regular touch and she serves as an impact producer on the film, often speaking on panels and giving interviews on the project. I have seen her overcome her fear of public speaking and address huge crowds with her inspiring personal story numerous times, which has been amazing. We are flying together to Telluride, CO later this week to present Street Reporter at the Original Thinkers Festival, and I can’t wait.

Did making this film change your view of homeless in Washington DC and across the US?

Before making this film, I had not spent significant time within the homeless community in my city, so it was a hugely eye-opening experience. Before making the film, I often wondered why people choose to live in tents rather than staying in shelters. After interviewing the residents of these tent cities, I became much more aware of the challenges of life within shelters, and how, for some people, living in a tent feels like a safer or freer place to be than a shelter. I also came away from the project with a fuller sense of how complex the issues of housing instability, affordability and homelessness are, and how there are no easy solutions.

What do you hope audiences take away from Street Reporter and Sheila’s story?

My hope for viewers who have not experienced homelessness is that they see themselves in Sheila’s story, that the psychological, “us/them,” barrier between those who are housed and those who are unhoused is broken down. All of us, if handed similar life circumstances of those facing homelessness, could easily end up in the same place. I want people to remember Sheila’s story of being forced to erase her femininity in order to survive on the streets. When you pass by a tent city, I want people to think of Mike, and his story of being dehumanized by the experience of homelessness. Ultimately, my hope is to generate empathy that leads to action and solutions to homelessness. 

What are your plans and ambitions for the future?

I have just finished directing a new feature documentary called Project Home: 3D Printing the Future. While Street Reporter focused on the issue of homelessness, my new film explores solutions to the housing crisis in the form of 3D printed housing technology. The film follows a group of tech entrepreneurs and families whose futures hang in the balance, exploring if 3D printed home construction is an empty promise or a possible game changer for people in need of affordable housing. Project Home is having its world premiere on October 11th at the Heartland Film Festival and its LA premiere on October 16th at Awareness Festival.

After that, my plan is to continue making films I am passionate about while teaching at American University.

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