How can you tell the story of a social issue like the affordable housing crisis in the U.S.? What does this story reveal about wealth and inequality in America? And when many of society’s problems are often only represented by data, reports, and statistics, what does it take to make a compelling documentary?
In this event, Sara Terry presents her film “A Decent Home,” and discusses how and why she spent six and a half years on this project which addresses issues of class and economic inequality through the lives of mobile home park residents who can’t afford housing anywhere else.
David Campbell: Welcome to this VII Insider event. Pleasure to have Sara Terry with us to discuss her documentary film, A Decent Home. So, Sara, as everyone knows, is an award-winning documentary photographer and filmmaker, probably best known for your Aftermath Project, Sara, I think.
Sara Terry: I would think. Wouldn’t be that surprised. Yeah.
David Campbell: And but we’re going to be discussing the third film documentary that you’ve made, A Decent Home, about affordable housing, and mobile housing parks in the US.
Sara Terry: Are you going—are you able to play the trailer? Or okay.
David Campbell: Do you want me to start with that?
Sara Terry: Well, whatever. Let’s start with the trailer. Yeah, because for people who haven’t seen it, you know, get an idea.
David Campbell: There we go.
Sara Terry: Yeah, just to give people a taste of it. We are, also y’all just uh, I asked David, if I would be able to say this, so that when that trailer played on your zoom screen, the video was probably lagging a little bit, you can go to the film’s website, adecenthomefilm.com to watch it, so, it doesn’t lag. And we’re streaming on Amazon. Although as David has discovered, it’s hard to do from outside the US. Sorry about that.
David Campbell: At the moment, it says that it will be available in the UK, Europe and Australia.
Sara Terry: Oh, good. Good. That’s great.
David Campbell: At some later stage. But yeah, we’re discovering the documentaries have a lot of regional restrictions on them.
Sara Terry: Those are my distributors.
David Campbell: Nothing to do with you.
Sara Terry: Yeah, nothing to do with me. But you had asked me how I how I got interested in this story. And it was in 2015. So, it was, this film took me six and a half years to make. But I had made two documentaries, I didn’t really think I wanted to make another one. It’s a so much more than being a photographer I it’s it draws on the part of my head that was a print journalist for so many years. And I didn’t think I was going to do something, but I read an article in The Guardian about Mobile Home University, which you will see in the film. And it’s a place where mid-level investors learn to buy and sell mobile home parks to make the most money possible. And the guy who runs it says the most outrageous things and I was like, whoa, what is this, but the part of the article that really got to me was about the billionaires who are in the business who own, who are lenders, who are, who own parks. Sam Zell is one of them. And it said that the Carlyle Group, which is one of the largest private equity firms in the world, had just started buying parks. And that was it for me, like, for me the wealth gap is the defining issue of our times. It’s greed as the face of climate change, systemic racism, it’s like, greed is behind all of that. And so, I was like, I cannot believe this. And literally, it was a slam your feet on the floor moment. And then like, five weeks later, maybe six weeks later, I filmed the first scene, which was at Mobile Home University. So, I just was in and it took six and a half years, many years of it without much funding from anybody, with me working with the camera that somebody bought for me and, you know, paying for gas in my car.
David Campbell: That’s right. At the beginning, why did you decide to make a documentary film about this issue, rather than a documentary photo project, or some other form of telling a story.
Sara Terry: You know, there—I’m happiest, I’m most satisfied with a still camera in my hands and making photographs. What I’ve learned, the first documentary I made was shot in Sierra Leone, and it had a huge impact in the world. And I, what I’ve learned is that a documentary film builds the biggest conversation. Apart from I don’t know, once I wrote a cover story for The New York Times Magazine, that that had a big impact. But in terms of conversation, a documentary film, and the way the world is structured, with film festivals and impact campaigns, I just felt I could do the most with it. And also, you know, some of the imagery, or basically, almost all the still imagery around mobile home parks is very stereotypical. It’s very, you know, run down, or destroyed by tornadoes. And I think it’s hard to, I felt I could do a better job of breaking stereotypes with a film, with a story, than I could with photographs.
David Campbell: And is that because the participants in the story, we get to hear their voice directly, and we get to see their lives as a work in motion? Is that more effective than photographs?
Sara Terry: There’s just a fabric that weaves, you know, that you, when you come into, you know, when you’re—there’s a couple named Hilda and Lolo, who are through the whole film, and they’re a Hispanic couple in Colorado who live in a park there. That’s one of the main stories in the film, and to be in their home, to hear the sizzle of the eggs as Lalo is cooking, because he’s always feeding everybody, to hear the laughter of family. It’s just, I’ve also been on public radio. So, I’m really aware of the impact of sound. You know, it was just, there’s so much you can work with, and I just felt, I’d be interested in possibly going back and doing a still photography project about mobile home parks. But all of those elements you talked about, it’s that 3D sensor. I can bring you into a place more effectively, I felt with film than I could with still photos.
David Campbell: Yeah. Let’s talk a bit a little bit about the issue itself, because I didn’t know much about this issue until I had seen the website, the trailer and done some of the reading on that. And the website is fantastic. Because you’ve got a lot of interviews, you’ve got some background stories there and so on. I mean, I suspect even anyone who’s just visited the US has probably driven past a mobile home park, but thought, who lives there, what what’s going on. But if I’m right in understanding this, there’s 20 million Americans who live in mobile home parks,
Sara Terry: Mobile homes. It’s a smaller number that lives in parks, right, because some mobile homes are on private land. But yeah, 20 million Americans. This is one of the— it’s the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the United States. Subsidized affordable housing comes in the form of what’s called Section 8 vouchers. And even the funding for that, only one in four people who you are, you know, qualify for it, actually get it. So, here’s this housing stock, you know, that has a long history in the United States, but actually began with the wealthiest of the wealthy in the early 1900s. It began with the invention of the car. There were no motels, you know, the hotels were around train stations. So, there were no places along roads where people driving could stay. And you’ll see it in the film. They actually tricked out their cars and turned them into some pretty fancy mobile homes. And that sort of began the journey and it’s been up and down over all the years over being trailer trash and being desirable, being like, GIs lived in them, you know, young couples going to university lived in them. We just, it’s just over the past, you know, 30 or 40 years in particular it really become denigrated and stereotyped. And Hollywood stereotypes it. It’s amazing that you can still say in the United States, you can still say trailer trash, you can call somebody trailer trash, or you can refer to it. I’ve seen it on network television, with nobody calling you out, with nobody saying that’s an unacceptable slur. You know, it’s probably the last thing along with hillbillies. It’s a class issue, you know, and we haven’t yet begun to look at our attitudes about class.
David Campbell: Yeah. Yeah, I’m thinking of, not because they necessarily use that term. But I’m thinking of a TV series like Ozark if you’ve seen that there’s the portrayal of the people living in, quote, mobile homes, and so on. Extremely downhill, extremely poor, extremely marginal, extremely precarious.
Sara Terry: Traditionally, in Hollywood. It’s funny, because I did, at one point, I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which I almost got, but I had a panel of academic advisors and I found somebody who’d written a book about the portrayal of trailer parks in Hollywood. It is almost always used to signify dead end, or failure or lost hope. It’s, you never see the people that you see, like in my film, who are the vast majority of the Americans living in parks, so it’s a trope, that we sort of go, yeah, dead end. Oh, no hope, you know, and that we do that to a form of housing, you know, to what? The film’s title, A Decent Home comes from the 1949 Federal Housing Act, which pledged a decent home for every American. Do you know, and it’s, yeah, and it’s just like, what have we, we’ve just all of our perceptions about what’s of value, what matters, what we need, have just become so disproportionately, you know, out of whack, in the past 50 or 60 years in America. And this is one of, an example of that.
David Campbell: So, one of the interesting things about the history of mobile homes, as you say there, so it begins with the car, it begins, actually, with wealthy people going out finding places—
Sara Terry: Finding places to stay in their brand-new cars, yeah.
David Campbell: And that gives rise to camper vans, RVs, recreational vehicles, etc. But now, these mobile homes are not actually very mobile.
Sara Terry: No, not at all.
David Campbell: Pretty much fixed in place. You can technically move them, but it’s very expensive to do so.
Sara Terry: Thousands of dollars.
David Campbell: This becomes the source of—this is what makes exploitation easy because you can’t get them off the land. But these people, even though they own these properties, are having to pay this lot rent and this land rent to companies that own the land underneath their mobile home. So, they’re completely stuck in that sense.
Sara Terry: It’s the key sticking point. You own your home. For this community, it’s probably the most significant capital investment of their lives. So, all of their money’s in it. But you rent the land you live on, which quite frankly, I need to say Londoners with all that your lot, your land lease, you know, properties, like your, if you’re on that 99-land lease in London, you’re screwed too. But it’s like it’s, you know, that idea of land ownership, and who owns the land is so fundamental to American identity in particular and other countries as well. But originally, the people who could vote in the United States you had to be a land—not just white and male, you had to be a landowner. So, there’s this constant, you know, back and forth, and pressure within understanding who we are as Americans, that places property over people. You know, it’s like the South in the Confederate War, I was just reading something about Lincoln. He drew on, you know, the Constitution and freedom. And the South was talking about the rights of property. So, it’s the fundamental American conundrum.
David Campbell: Yeah. There’s a comment from Ellie in the chat saying that it’s incomprehensible that there are so many mobile homes because land prices and house prices in rural areas in the US are so much cheaper than in Western Europe. I don’t know whether that’s true or not whether the land is actually cheaper in that way. But in addition to kind of the low economic status of people who come to live in mobile home parks, well, I mean, what are the other factors that mean that they don’t buy rural land, or they don’t buy other forms of?
Sara Terry: Well, so, most of these parks are in urban areas. They were built around urban spaces. And they were almost always placed on the exteriors of city limits where people didn’t have to see them. They were on land that was not valuable. So, one of the main stories in the film is about a park in Aurora, Colorado. And there was nothing around it at the time it was built. I think the owner paid like $1.5 million for that land. And he becomes, the story is about what happens with that park. But what happened is, Denver expanded out. Aurora, the town it’s in, expanded, there are two major freeways, there’s a light rail line going through it. And there’s a $5 billion medical campus, literally across the street from the mobile home park. So, the land value changed. So, I think, Ellie, you’ve got a misconception in thinking we’re talking about homes in rural areas, there’s a park that David and I were talking about before we began. There’s a park that’s in Silicon Valley right next door to Google headquarters that is in the film. And there are a lot of mobile home parks in Silicon Valley. So this is about, you know, a mainly urban type of housing.
David Campbell: Right. And that explains it’s part of a huge attraction for external investors.
Sara Terry: Oh, completely because there—
David Campbell: They can buy up land.
Sara Terry: Yep. And there’s very few legal protections for mobile home park residents anywhere in the United States. Some states have begun to take action. Colorado, during the course of making this film, the park that’s in the film actually triggered a lot of legislation in that state. But it’s, apartment dwellers generally have more rights than a mobile home park resident, because in most states, park owners can raise the rent by as much as they want to, as often as they want to. There is no quasi-eviction laws, which means you can tell somebody, they have to get out in like 30 or 60 days, which is like, how do you move your home, you know, so, it’s an important form of housing, and a really vulnerable form.
David Campbell: And it seems vulnerable, because it just doesn’t fall into standard categories of either owning your home and land, that’s one category, or completely renting is the other category. And this is a mix of the two where you own the home, but not the land.
Sara Terry: And it’s the heritage of land ownership in the history of the United States, which gives, it equals power. And that’s a lot of the battle that you see in the film is over what happens with the ownership of the land. It’s that clash between that Milton Friedman economics, which is make as much money as you can, you know, because your only social obligation of a corporation is to make more money for its shareholders, which is not an endemic part of capitalism. We had capitalism in the United States for a long time. Before that, you know it Theodore Roosevelt, I mean, Franklin Roosevelt, with lots of homeownership, a healthy middle class, and unions. It was this thinking that changed the economic situation in America to trickle-down economics, neoliberalism, which the Democrats espouse, this almighty, you know, the market solves everything. And within that, ownership of land, which hello, on top of it, we do a land acknowledgement at the end of the film, which points out that the people who lived here first believe that the land is a sacred space and can’t be owned by anyone. So, we sit on these two contradictory principles as Americans in the founding of what is America today.
David Campbell: Yes, it’s the settler colonialists who are making the money off the land, actually.
Sara Terry: Hello, who brought that with them.
David Campbell: Exactly. So, let’s get back to— so, you first read a Guardian article. It’s about the Mobile Home University, which is about people buying up the property and how to turn this into an investment portfolio and so on. Tell us about the experience of going to that University. How did you get access? What happened there?
Sara Terry: It was amazing. It was, they were kind of the— Frank Rolfe says what he says, he doesn’t try to hide anything. He just speaks off the cuff and says crazy things like, you don’t want to know the residents’ names, you know, they’re not your friends, they’re, you know, this is a business, go in and cut down all the trees and drain the swimming pool, you know, reduce your costs, so you can make the most money possible. This is just like right out there. I was welcomed into them. They were like all press is good press and what happened— and there were some people in there who were, you know, it wasn’t unreasonable, like a, I remember one woman who said, my family and I want to be able to set up a secure, you know, retirement fund for us. So, we’re going to buy five or six parks and we feel we can make money that way. And it’s, so, there’s a decency on the part of many people, just like, well, this looks like a good business deal, without thinking through those implications. And what happened, by the way, if you if you Google John Oliver and mobile home parks, you will find a 2019 story that just lays it out. It’s a really hard-hitting, also really funny story. And the show licensed my footage, which the film was called, That’s How We Roll back then. But they licensed my footage, and they licensed in particular, the footage of Frank Rolfe and Mobile Home University. They no longer let the media into their seminars. Somebody, a reporter, told me that, he’s like, I was trying to get in, he goes, they won’t do it anymore. I was like, I’m sure after, you know, the John Oliver show, and yeah, I’ve heard variously that, you know, the the film has made, you know, certain lobbyists and park owners’ groups kind of apoplectic, you know, with what I’m calling it.
David Campbell: So, that’s a success, right?
Sara Terry: Yeah. Yeah.
David Campbell: So, then, how did you—
Sara Terry: I just want to say, I’m so glad that Ted lived in a trailer, and you’re saying exactly it, we all looked out for each other. It’s just—
David Campbell: Yes. Ted has a comment. I’ll read it out. He says, I lived in a trailer in a small hamlet, and it was a great community. We all looked out for each other. The Hamlet had 200 people and about 400 dogs. But I imagine that is par for the course when it comes to Trailer Park Boys, I miss it, he says.
Sara Terry: Trailer Park Boys, he might be referring to the Canadian sort of a comedy show. It was a lot of people; I found such a sense of community in these parks. I think you asked me what it was like to be in them. I was welcomed in. I found people so grateful that I was there to see them and to tell their story. They’re so used to not being seen almost everybody, I mean, I’m still in touch with everybody in the film. We worked with them in the impact campaign. I had people who were like, the key is under the front doormat, you know, people who’d invite me to stay, you know, during the course of filming. And I found this extraordinary level of care for each other. But also, there’s a character in the film, who at one point says when are the rich, rich enough. And just as everything is being taken from her. And because it’s just more money, the park owner refuses a really great offer because he wants more money. And it’s like, but more money. You know, for what, and I think people who live in parks, I have found consistently, they know how much enough is. They may not always have enough. Many of the low-income parks folks are working two and three jobs to pay their bills and care for their kids. But they know how much enough is. They don’t want five houses and 10 cars, and you know, vacations around the world. They know what matters. And I just like, with the film, I wanted to say, listen to these people. They’re getting something right here that the rest of us have gone really down the wrong path on thinking what makes us happy. What? How much is enough? Again, that’s the face of so much of what we face in the world today. You know, it’s the face of greed. It’s just, I just think it’s such a profound learning space.
David Campbell: Yeah. How did you identify the people and the parks that you wanted to go to an interview? So, if you’ve gone to Mobile Home University, how did you then know where to go to get—
Sara Terry: It’s hard.
David Campbell: —in particular places? Tell us about that process.
Sara Terry: It’s tricky. That’s where my background as a print journalist, I think served me well. Although, you know, photographers do lots of great research themselves. But I started just Googling mobile home parks across the United States, or I went through news searches. I’m really like a terrier dog with a bone when it comes to like, okay, where is it? What is it? And I began, I read an article about this park in, you know, in Mountain View, California, which is next door to Google headquarters. One of the things about mobile home parks is you can’t just like walk in and sort of go, oh, hey, I got a camera. Can I— I’m going to make a film. You know, they’re, they tend to be in many ways, closed communities, too. They’re a little suspicious of somebody coming in like that, which I understand because they’ve been so, you know, ostracized, but so with the park in Mountain View, I would literally go through it, find people’s names if they were in an article, and then I would go pay for the Yellow Pages to try to find phone numbers. And I would make a phone call and then I would connect. You know, then I drove up in the case of this, I had no money, but I had a car, and I could pay for gas, and I would, that’s how I met people in Northern California. I found the Iowa story because a local reporter had seen my footage on John Oliver and a private equity firm had just started to buy things up and I was like, I didn’t give him my foot—but I didn’t let him use my footage. I said, oh, oh, yeah, that park. But I totally faked it, I said, I’ve heard about that park. I hadn’t heard anything about that park. I said, which one is it? And he told me the name. And so, I found the phone number of the board president. And it just, you know, and then I was interviewing somebody who works, helps park residents buy the parks they live in. It’s a nonprofit. And I said, I’m trying to find a park that’s going— so, for a documentary film, right, you need pretty much an Act 1-2-3 story. Like, I just I needed to find a park that was going through the challenge that I could document the challenge, and I could tell, see what happened at the end of that story. So, I was in this office one day, and they’d just gotten an email from somebody in Colorado, so it just good old fashioned, you know, reporting and I had a lot of parks that were in the film that I filmed at that weren’t in the film. I filmed a park in Pennsylvania that a young Ukrainian American brother and sister team, you know, wanted to buy their first park and you know, there’s a park in Florida that I filmed in that used to be an RV park and is now not a mobile home park and is now becoming a tiny home park. But they all became not the story. I had to really, I felt the story that needed to be told was this one of, you know, greed. So, that’s where—
David Campbell: And what’s the difference between a mobile home park and a tiny home park?
Sara Terry: Yeah. Well, so size, you know, tiny homes are even smaller than mobile homes. Mobile homes have gotten doublewides are pretty spacious. You can have a 2500 square foot, you know, mobile home. No, this guy, just this guy who owned it, his family owned the park, which is on a gorgeous little manmade lake near in Orlando, he thought he wanted to start, you know, bringing in tiny, people who own tiny homes, and it’s turning, almost the whole park is tiny homes now, which is a different, it’s a great story. You know, I might make a short film out of that one at some point, because I’ve got all the footage, but it just didn’t fit. You know, it’s pretty typical for when you make a documentary that you have filmed a lot of— one like mine that has a extensive, like a national look at it, that you do a lot of work that doesn’t wind up in the film. You have to really hone into what’s that story. It’s a different way of thinking than how you think as a still photographer, even, as you know, I’m the cinematographer on the film. So, it was like, I needed to have my eye on that camera, I needed to make the frames I knew what I wanted to convey. I knew the metaphors I was looking for. And I just didn’t want to have to communicate that somebody else plus, you know, it’s like, I wanted that space.
David Campbell: Yeah, yeah. But I think the fact that it’s all based on as you said classical reporting. That is, I mean, what the social scientists would call a snowballing technique, you talk to one person, then they give you leads to another person. And then it snowballs into, okay, now I’ve got 12 contacts, and I know more about this particular area, and so on.
Sara Terry: And I know that I learned that that’s what I that’s where I grew up in as a journalist, 20 years of, of newspaper and magazine reporting. So yeah, it served me well.
David Campbell: But as you say, you were the cinematographer on this documentary? And you’re a photographer, do you have to literally think about putting on a different hat when you’re a cinematographer versus a photographer? And tell us about that? What are the different things that you have to think about?
Sara Terry: So, it’s funny, Jessica Dimmock, who’s a member of VII and she does a lot of documentary filmmaking now. We were talking about it and it’s like, as photographers, we’re trying to get the moment, right, the decisive moment or the thing, you’ve only got that, you want to get that one shot that says everything. And a lot of photographers bring that into their work when they’re shooting film, and they kind of, that’s what they get. They’re like, I got that moment where everybody burst into tears. And it’s like, yeah, but you need the beginning, middle and end of that story. You’re filming in a different way. You’re working—there’s a continuity in film. Do you know, like verité filmmaking is astonishing to me because there’s nothing to camera you don’t interview anybody to camera like a verité film just literally follows what’s happening. That’s kind of like the highest art form in doc filmmaking that you can do but you can’t—you’re thinking about story as you’re working and you’re thinking Act One, Two and Three. You know, you’re there’s a lot in your head. It’s tricky. I mean, I was the only, because I had no funding, I was the only crew member basically for the whole production. I did the whole film myself as director, producer, field producer, media management, you know, cinematographer, booker, all those things. And in many ways, it worked because of the intimacy of those spaces and what I captured, you know that there wasn’t a crew around me as I was working. So, that was great. But it’s uh, yeah, it’s just—
I’m trying to think of how I would talk about it differently, you start to have to think— so, as a filmmaker, if you’re not, so I’ve always said, when you’re in production, when you’re filming, if you’re a director who doesn’t shoot, your best friend is your cinematographer, because that person has to understand how to translate your vision visually. So, I could do that myself. But once you enter post-production, once you’ve finished filming, your best friend is your editor. Because they take that footage, I mean, anybody who acts, anybody who’s not an editor themselves have their own films, but who acts like their film is made all by themselves is being deceitful. Because you need, you know, there’s a team that makes a film. And an editor needs so much footage to work with. It’s astonishing. You know, I think we probably have 120 hours from the film, and probably almost everything that was usable, has wound up in the 86 minutes, in terms of, you know, what gets called B roll, which is really setting and, you know, cutaway shots. You just, the most I learned about documentary filmmaking was from working with an editor, because I could see what they needed. And I had worked on my first film with somebody who was a photographer, who, oh my God, that editor was ready to throw him right through the wall, because he was like, he got no cutaways. He got no, you know, like, what is he thinking? You know, it was just, it’s, I learned a heck of a lot.
David Campbell: To give you a sequence and a transition between scenes and—
Sara Terry: Absolutely. To build a story, to do a cutaway, to give you a moment, you know, if you’re cutting what somebody says, you know, from—they’ve said something at the beginning of the interview, and then two minutes in, they say something else, you have to have the footage that allows for that coverage, you know, to cut away from the face. So, it’s not an awkward edit. Yeah, if you’re, if anybody has an interest in making a film, work with an editor first, find out how they—with them while they’re editing a film. You know? I’m sure, I think I just walked a million miles around whatever question you asked David, I’m sorry, I do that all the time.
David Campbell: But at the same time, you did take still photos, right? You did take some still photos? Was that during the process or after the process? And you’ve got some to share with us too, I think right?
Sara Terry: I have, I do, I can bring them up now. So, what is funny about this, I’m sorry, if you’re hearing any noise outside here, but it is trash day, in my neighborhood, and there’s a big trash can outside my door. I’m going to go to my share screen. But first, I’ll say, there were photo editors who knew about the project. Like, oh, I can’t wait to see the photos you take. And I’m like, do you have any idea what it means to have, you know, a camera in front your face and you don’t put it down. You know because you might miss something. And my priority as a filmmaker, is to make sure I get that moment, you know, especially with these homes, these stories when somebody’s closing the door for the last time. I’m not going to go, could you, I’m just going to grab a still shot of that, you know, so it’s, it couldn’t be done. But I did—for VII, we did a group project during the 2020 election year called America Again. And we met in Iowa City, Iowa, to begin the conversation about it. And one of my mobile home parks, one of my main characters, it was like right next to Iowa City. So, I shot stills for a story that’s in America Again and I will show you, this became one, this image actually became— I think you need to give me share screen, David. It says one panelist can share at a time. Oh, here we go. Operator error, easily. So, this is from America Again. And this is Candi Evans. You saw her in the trailer. She was 71 years old at the time, had just retired from the roofing company she owned with her husband who had passed away a few years back. This is her home, you know, in North Liberty, Iowa, and Maggie Steber and I were shooting that day. And it was just a really lovely moment. Candi loves her garden, and it was like this picture wound up, it’s been used, being used by film festivals. It’s on, I have a three-image poster. But this is like a DSLR shot. What I had to do, when you have money and you’re a filmmaker, you have a stills person come out and shoot with you from time to time. I did not, so these images here, put it on full screen. These are screenshots from the film. They are in the press kit that we use, they will, I mean, I’ll just stop that. So, this is a park in New Hampshire, where the residents were able to buy their park. It’s just four units. The film, it has a very diverse cast. It’s got, there’s a Hispanic Park, there’s this couple, small, well, it’s all around class mostly in terms of low income, but there’s a variety of groups. Hispanics are growing in numbers. Park residents has traditionally been like a white landscape. Mike, this guy over here, words cannot express how much I don’t care, was a really lovely character. You asked me how I pick subjects. You find people who are engaging. You cannot have, for a documentary film, you can’t cast—I’m using that in a film-making sense—a character who’s boring. So, what I discovered was that almost by definition, anybody who lives in a mobile home park is by definition an interesting character. They’ve made choices about being there. They’re there for certain reasons, and they’re there—it was so easy to find characters for this film. This is Brad and Barbara in the park next door to Silicon headquarters, or next door to Google headquarters. Their cat, Harrison, was constantly going for my mic, my onboard mic. It was fascinated by the muff that it was in. This is in the press posters at one point. This was in the film, then it was out. I’m sorry, this is a little bit lower. This is also that park next to Google headquarters. And the pictures, Elizabeth Warren is in the film. I had the great good fortune of filming during the presidential campaign race, and she came to Candi’s house. She has been interested in mobile home park issues in private equity. So, that picture got used a lot. And again, like when you make a film, you’re shooting in what’s called a log. So you’re shooting to allow— in post-production to allow the person who does your color correction, you’re shooting in a really horrible dark space, that becomes very gray. But it’s because you’re allowing the blacks to be open; you’re giving a wider range of blacks to be used in post-production. So, if you’re trying to make a still from that kind of, from footage that hasn’t been corrected yet, it’s really difficult. And some of these were from that. This is the opening shot in the film. This is Petra’s house. And this is one of her really cherished objects and it shows up at a very critical moment later in the film. Luz is from the park in Colorado, and she’s become a community organizer. This was, you know, just so you know, as a photographer, I’m not really a big fan of this shot, because I think it’s kind of crappy color. I mean, it was a bad day. But um, it’s this really wonderful moment. Hilda and Lalo lose their home in the film and this love between them is really important. A hearing at the Iowa State Capitol house, this is a young state senator on the right, who has become very well-known, will probably move into national politics, but he’s big defender of mobile home parks. So, at least I’m pulling, you know, I’m framing as a cinematographer, I am trying to work the way I work as a photographer, you know. I work when it’s appropriate with complex compositions. You know, there’s plenty of times when it’s not and you just need to focus on one person, but like, I would be proud of that, as a photographer, you know, that I built out a complex photo. I had to choose photos, stills, for specific, like, this is Barbara and Brad in Silicon Valley. I’m just trying to show how tiny their little backyard is. This woman lives in Silicon Valley. In a park in Silicon Valley. She paid $54,000 for her home, and has furnished it with like, you know, things from thrift stores and it’s the most beautiful home. And she in the film talks about a home for sale for $64 million just a few minutes away and makes a comparison.
David Campbell: $54,000 versus $64 million.
Sara Terry: She literally, you see here, go $54,000 — $64million and she says I think I’m happier. One of the things I’m proudest of in the film is this Fourth of July scene in the little park in New Hampshire. It was, this is one of my favorite images even though it’s kind of grainy. I would be proud of that as a still photograph, they’re watching the fireworks. This is Frank Rolfe who runs Mobile Home University. You can see some of these images are grainy on here. It’s just what I had to deal with. Trust me, any publicist working on a film is going to say please, you know, have real still photographs made. It was just an impossibility for me. Frank Rolfe.
Sara Terry: I want to show Cindy and Dean from the park in Iowa. I just wanted to show them at home, you know. They were watching TV and folding laundry. And that’s the 20 that I have that is in the press kit.
David Campbell: Really. I mean, what’s striking to me about those images is that when you look at the interior images, you have no idea that it’s a quote, a mobile home park or anything. They’re just homes.
Sara Terry: They are homes. And I was always looking for the signifiers. There are other pictures that I’ve taken too, like, you know, I filmed one of those gnomes, like, the garden gnomes that are there was in somebody’s front yard. You know, I filmed that I filmed, just, I just, I filmed family antiques, I filmed things that people treasured. I tried to film things that were, there’s my puppy. I tried to film things that signified somebody’s interior life. You know, Hilda, Hilda and Lalo, who you saw, she is a very, she’s a woman of great faith. And as they sat down to eat, there’s a, there was a paint a painting behind them of a sort of a religious person in prayer. So, I made sure that’s in the frame, you know, there’s so many, there’s so much—I don’t, I mean, smart directors know, that kind of thing, too. And they know how to, what they’re looking for, but they’re not all that visually literate, which is why I think a really smart cinematographer—I would love to shoot for somebody, where I’m not the director. I wouldn’t be happy. I mean, actually, what I want to do right now shoot is still photography project, because I miss it so much. But if I were to work again in film, I’d be happy, you know, saying, tell me what you want. Tell me what, you know, let me, let’s get to the themes. And then let me film it for you.
David Campbell: You were talking a little bit earlier about the virtue of working with an editor. So, —has a practical question, how does one find a generic film editor to start a relation with if you’ve not worked with a film editor before? How do you go about locating one. Any thoughts on that.
Sara Terry: Well, the thing, here’s the other thing on that film editors in the doc film world, for many years, there’s sort of a joke, they were the people who always got paid. Directors, most of the people had deferred salaries. I’ve kind of refused to work that way and made sure everybody got paid all the way. People are starting to understand that you can’t impoverish filmmakers. They need to be paid. But very few directors are going to, I mean, editors are going to, say, are going to work with you for free. I would say depending on where you live, see if there’s any kind of a documentary film organization. Lots of them have meetups, local meetups. Or you can, you could also take an evening, an adult education class at a university on editing, you know and meet people there that you can get to it. I happen to live in a community literally within like a square mile, there are 30 or 40 documentary filmmakers in my neighborhood. So, you know, I have access to a lot of people, one of the best doc editors in the business is my neighbor and has worked on my films. This is Birdie, by the way, she was just waking up.
David Campbell: Wants to join in.
Sara Terry: Yeah, so, I would just say get creative. Look around, if you know if there’s a— Google documentary film editors, you know, see if you can take somebody to lunch or offer to do, you know, an, you know, shoot for them. I don’t know what an editor would need it for. But in exchange for just getting to watch them work for an afternoon and ask them questions about the process. You might also have greater luck finding somebody who’s an assistant editor in documentary film, because they know so much. They’re prepping the footage, they know a ton and can help you, you know, you can, they might be a little more accessible than an editor. But um, there’s lots of ways to do it, it’s just back to that creative space, you know, the rabbit hole of journalism and finding, you know, one thing leads to another and how you meet people. And it’s about who you are as a person too. And being nice and bringing gifts. I always, you know, feed my editors, or bring them treats or flowers or chocolates or whatever they like, you know, that goes a long way to build those kinds of relationships.
David Campbell: So, if anyone else in the audience wants to post a question, please do so. We have a little bit more time. I just have a couple more questions that I wanted to ask because I wanted to bring us back to the question—at the beginning, you talked about the way in which a documentary film is a really effective conversation starter, a way to have a conversation and so on. So, tell us a little bit about why that’s the case and also about the engagement and impact agenda that you have with the film and how that plays out. What are you doing in terms of engagement? And how do you hope to have impact?
Sara Terry: We have a huge engagement campaign; we finished the first year of it. I mean, I just say that the common thinking in the doc world is you need to raise as much money for your impact campaign as you raise for making your film. Not everybody can get there. I raised probably over $700,000 to make the film. There’s it’s almost entirely done on grants and donations. And then I raised nearly $450,000, for the first year of the impact campaign. It— I’m trying to think of how to explain this film. So, this is the only documentary film about mobile home parks, like what I know about this film. I mean, there’s some short films or some kind of not professionally done things, but this is the first in this space. It’s needed it so I, from the beginning, made relationships with the people who work in this area, you know, and said, it’s going to take me a while but I’m going to make this film, and how do you want to use the film? So, we’ve had this past year, we’ve worked, especially in Colorado and Iowa, because those are where the main stories of the film are, but we have done community screening tours with partners. So, every one of those screenings, the ones that had been out in Colorado, there was always like a mayor, the state, you know, a state representative, the mobile home park residents, that’s really important. We weren’t— in our campaign, we didn’t sort of go out and say, oh, we’re going to go accomplish this. We said to our partners, what do you need? How can we serve? How can we help build the conversation? We have a short— I made a short documentary called, it’s not, it’ll be online soon. It’s called the Carlyle Group versus the American Dream. That film—so, one of our partners is run by a guy who used to be the head of affordable housing at the Ford Foundation. A very well-known man in the affordable housing world. He, we were in, you use your film festival run to sort of trigger events. We were at a great festival in Boston, IFF Boston, and this man, the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, of Land Policy, he’s right near there. He organized a reception that Elizabeth Warren almost came to, but that had several state legislators, park residents, other people working in the sphere. And they showed—the sort of centerpiece of it was screening this short film, 11 minutes long. What happened in the connections that followed was the state of Massachusetts, one of the representatives there, triggered a $1.9 million grant to help residents of a park in Massachusetts by the park they live in. So, that was a big thing. We organized a private screening in New York with one of our partners. They work with a lot of banking VPs or try to get them involved. We did this very small event in a Fifth Avenue penthouse that one of my producers had a friend who you know, offered us her home. And we showed the 10-minute film, we also had Rana Foroohar, who is a Financial Times reporter – editor who’s written on this. And some people couldn’t come because of COVID. I was originally a little disappointed. But what happened many months later, if somebody had been invited to the screening, a Vice President from JPMorgan Chase, he couldn’t come, I sent him a link to the film, they wound up giving a $10 million donation to a fund that’s been started in Colorado to help residents buy the parks they live in. So, we are working with people who are the experts in this field to say how can the film bring these stories home? Because these stories mostly exist as numbers and stereotypes, right? And the film is sitting in this space where it says, no, look at this. These are real people, real homes, real lives, value to who we are, so what are you going to do about it? So, it’s just, it’s an amazing, it’s like a great big bonfire or community, you know, like that the community can gather around and go, oh, we’re going to go talk. I mean, people ask me, I testified at a study session for the Oklahoma legislature where they’re thinking about passing some kind of, you know, support. So, it’s, well, this year, I think we’re going to focus on trying to get into business schools to take advantage of this changing mentality about, you know, being all pro-capitalism in business schools. And we’ll also look at a screening on Capitol Hill. So, it’s about you know, educating and getting people involved. I can’t tell you how many people like, I had no idea this was going on, you know, and so, it’s uh, I mean, our first goal was to change stereotypes. I think we’re doing a pretty good job. The Guardian ran a great piece on us, you know, last month when we started streaming, so, we’re getting there. We’ll have a television broadcast in the United States next year, which I can’t tell the details about, but it will be on our website.
David Campbell: Yeah, I think the impact thing is so important. But also, I think the way that you have talked about it, highlights really crucial things. One is the film as a tool, and you made it available to people who, so you collaborated with people on that. So, it wasn’t all on your own shoulders, which given that the whole six-year project had been on your own shoulders, you kind of—
Sara Terry: Exactly. I am not an expert in this area. There are some filmmakers who were like, we’re going to get so and so off death row, or they want to get a law passed. I’m like, I’m a storyteller. I’m a good storyteller. And I made a story that can really help you. But what do you want to do? I was very, I felt a huge need to be honest about, to be humble about, you know, I don’t have the answers. They are. What do you want to do?
David Campbell: But I think that’s both more honest, and actually, probably produces better results. Because you don’t go into impact thinking, I’m going to produce a $10 million donation from a JP Morgan guy or whatever. But I’m, what I’m going to do is I’m going to set up the conditions for a conversation where all sorts of things would be possible. Yes. And that’s one of the things that becomes possible, and legislation may be possible and changing the stereotypes is possible, and so on. Yeah, I think that it’s a really fascinating example of how people can think about impact. Yeah.
Sara Terry: That’s a great way to sum it up. Because there are people who leave impact campaigns with real, we will get this law passed, or whatever. And maybe they have the time and energy to do that. I don’t. I am truly not an activist. I mean, I’m a storyteller. And I go from story to story. There are two times in my life when I’ve had to stay with an issue longer, because I think it matters so much. One of them was The Aftermath Project. And A Decent Home is the other one. And I just saw, by the way that Trey Horvath asked about fundraising.
David Campbell: Indeed. How do you get started with grants and donations before you filmed anything to show? Do you have enough to begin the production? Is fundraising ongoing? How do you manage distribution while working on the project to satisfied donors and grantors?
Sara Terry: So, I think I said I worked for four years—a person, I have an angel donor who gave me the money to buy a C300 Mark II, that was about $20,000 at the time. And I had to commit to going, okay. I have, I didn’t, my second film had been almost entirely self-funded. I was like, I’m never doing that again. But I was like, well, and I was sort of going no, I’d say I’m not going to do this, I can’t get a grant. And I was like, no, you could start, you know, you could start, and you have a camera, and it’s sort of ungrateful of you to not start. There are a lot of, I’ve just learned, Trey, I’ve been involved in the documentary world for, you know, like, 12 years now. And I know what fund, what grants are out there. I’ve also, as somebody who has worked in, I hope, I mean, I think I have developed something of a reputation of for working for, like good causes. So like, you know, people who— I have angel donors who have supported the aftermath project and have wanted to support my other work. So, I had a significant amount of angel donor money that came from personal relationships in the film. Sundance is, you know, a place to look for grants that maybe you know, $30,000 it’s not going to be enough to make a film, but you just piece it together. We never got a Sundance grant. They supported my first film and we almost got Sundance support all the way through this but didn’t. We did get the Ford Foundation money. There are funders who understand, who are funding social justice issues and not worrying about is that the film that’s going to win an Oscar. So, those people are out there, and you just keep looking, you can hire a grant writer to work with you. Um, it is, it is not an easy task.
David Campbell: But basically, you’re pulling in lots of different funding sources. People go look at the website and you see the funding list. There must be a dozen or more organizations, individuals and so on.
Sara Terry: It’s huge. That is probably the toughest thing. I don’t know that I personally would ever want to go raise money for a film again. I think I would need to be, you know, I’d like to work—My first film was fully funded by somebody who I’d been working with, so, I didn’t understand how hard it could be. And I think the fact that I raised over a million dollars for you know the film and impact and only in only $25,000 of that was equity funding, which is money that technically you have to pay back. But you may never pay it back if you don’t have the profit. But I think a lot of that came from my reputation, you know, and my, which isn’t like I’m a famous filmmaker or anything like that, but combining who I am as a photographer and a filmmaker and the people I’ve gotten to know, and the things I—and the fact that this issue was so crucial, you know, and so under reported and so ignored, that was a trigger for raising money, the fact that I’m a pretty good grant writer. I know, there was a couple of grants that I knew how to exactly how to word the answer that that was probably $40,000 in two different grants there that I’m pretty sure that’s how I landed that. But I’m not—
David Campbell: Hard work, though. Very hard work.
Sara Terry: A lot of people have somebody who just does, you know, works on fundraising for grants for a producer on the film who does that, but yes, my head is like not— Can we have an answer on an upbeat, like, kind of upbeat tone, because that’s just a lot of hard work talk about—
David Campbell: We’ve got an upbeat question to finish with. We are at the end of our time, so we will finish with Jonathan’s question, which is that you mentioned that you really just want to do a still photography project. So, what still photography project do you have in mind? And how did you come by it? Do you have one in mind?
Sara Terry: I do. There’s three, there’s three. One of them is to continue a project I began when the women of VII did an exhibition on masculinity. And I’ve been photographing famous paintings of nude women made by men and flipping the gender roles. I have three or four more paintings I’d like to finish in that. It’s a work, I began it, and I just never showed it. I just showed it at FotoFest, and I had a great response from curators. So, I want to engage there. I have had a project in my head for quite a while, which is called being Sara Terry, which is a multi-participant memoir project, which involves me tracking down my name sisters, is what I call them, Sara Terry’s. There’s a whole story behind that. A lot of, Jonathan, the way my still projects come comes just out of my own little wanderings through my imagination and what I’m interested in, but I think I’m really, really drawn—I would love to find a way to photograph close and local and community. I want to do something that’s in the traditional, like, mainstream documentary world that says this matters. I guess I think the film has just brought me to a space so much of what matters, you know, who are we? And I think those answers, you know, for me, I want to explore that locally. So, yeah, I don’t know how to start, and I don’t know, it’s like, what am I taking for granted in my community here in Los Angeles? What do I take for granted? I’ve grew up in, you know, in LA, it’s like, what? What can I what do I what do I want to see here? So, and that also comes from me. I’m not, those aren’t driven by news stories, or, you know, like A Decent Home was and I think that’s part of what I’m craving right now as a storyteller is to be able to, to not be responding to exterior things, but to ask myself, you know, what matters? What do I value? You know, how much is enough?
David Campbell: Well, that’s a great note to finish on. So, that’s really good. We look forward to that. And thank you for your time today. It’s been fantastic and fascinating talking about documentary film, actually. And I think it’s such an important topic. For people in the US, it’s possible to get this through streaming platforms like Amazon Prime for people in—
Sara Terry: Stream on Amazon. I think we’re still on Apple TV. Yeah, we are. Yeah, but you can see it on Amazon Prime, and not outside of the US just yet.
David Campbell: But I think for Europe, the UK and the rest of the world that’s coming early next year. So, keep an eye out for that.
Sara Terry: I think so. And I just want to say, David, thank you for being such a gracious host and such a great interviewer. And I love those of you who showed up for this, you know, it’s just like, I love, we have a lot of small conversations with this film, and they’re so enriching to me. So, thank you all and—
David Campbell: Thanks.
Sara Terry: Always glad to be here.
David Campbell: Fantastic. Yeah.
Sara Terry: Yeah
David Campbell: We’ll talk soon.
Sara Terry: Take care.
David Campbell: Bye
Sara Terry: Bye
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Sara Terry, David Campbell