Alexandra Pelosi Grilled on Her HBO Doc on O.C. Poverty

Nancy’s daughter tackles poverty in the shadows of Disneyland

Alexandra Pelosi may have a last name renowned in Democratic political circles, but the films that the New York-based documentarian has made for HBO often as not explore subjects or communities on the conservative side of the political spectrum. The filmmaker, the daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, covered the George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign in “Journeys with George”; evangelicals (including the soon-to-be-disgraced Ted Haggard) in “Friends of God”; and the disillusionment of Republican voters on the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign trail in “Right America: Feeling Wronged.”

Pelosi’s new film, “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County,” which premieres Monday night on HBO, is less overtly political – but its setting is the heart of “the O.C.,” the well-to-do and famously conservative county south of Los Angeles. There, the cheap motels surrounding Disneyland have become home to the children of the working poor; the parents have jobs (including some at Disneyland itself), but don’t earn enough to afford the area’s sky-high rents.

Alexandra PelosiYour mother is one of the most famous liberals in the country, but often as not you seem drawn to conservative subjects, or conservative communities.

Well, I can genuinely say, I’m not sure I really cared about the people I made movies about before. That’s a terrible thing to say, but not in the way like I care about these kids. I’ve made six movies, and this is the first time I’ve cared like this.

I mean, you can forget about George Bush or Jerry Falwell. You can’t forget about a homeless kid.

So do you think this film will have a stronger impact than your previous films?

No, no. I don’t have any illusions that people will want to see this. I don’t know if people are going to watch this movie. It’s hard, watching homeless kids. People don’t want to do that. People are bummed. They get home from a long day at work, the last thing they want to hear about is homeless kids.

Is the subject matter here more of a problem than it was on your previous films?

Oh, yeah. I mean, you make a movie with Sarah Palin in it, you get great ratings. That’s easy. I know how to get ratings: get Sarah Palin. She was in my last movie, it did great. Or get Ted Haggard, with a drugs, sex and prostitutes scandal. Great ratings.

That stuff, people want to watch. Sex, drugs and prostitutes? Great. This one … I’m not so sure.

What drew you to this subject?

On the block where I live in Manhattan, there’s a soup kitchen. And I was walking down the street with my son, he said to me, “Mommy, why is that person sleeping on the street?” “Because he doesn’t have a home.” “Why doesn’t he have a home?” And I couldn’t come up with an answer.

Then I went to HBO, and I was telling the story to Sheila Nevins, the person I make movies for, and she said, “That’s what you need to make a movie about: the questions the two-year-old asks you that you can’t answer.” So that drew me to the subject – and when I did some research, I was drawn to Orange County, because it’s such a wealthy county, but it also has such a high population of homeless children.

Were the kids, and the families, open to you hanging around and asking them questions?

I think they liked having me around. A couple of the kids mentioned in the movie, “No one pays attention to me, I don’t get enough attention.” So they were happy to have someone to talk to, someone who cared about them. And I do genuinely care about these kids.

Motel Kids of Orange CountyWas it your usual m.o. of just you and your camera, without any crew?

I don’t have camera crews. I don’t have sound guys. What you see is what you get: just me and my camcorder. I used to be a kid with a camera, and that used to be kind of endearing to people. Now I’m sort of an old lady with a camera. It’s getting a little old.

So do you want to hire a crew next time around?

I don’t think anyone would hire me to do that. I’m the camera lady. That’s probably my strength. I don’t know what a director doeson documentaries. That’s why it’d be really weird for me to watch another documentary be made, because I’d be like, so that’s the cameraman and that’s the producer and that’s the director and that’s the reporter… I do allthose jobs, and I also have to book my own travel. They make me do everything. That’s how we do it on the cheap, and why I can continue making these things.

How long did you follow the kids?

A summer. Originally, the premise of it was, as the whole world goes on summer vacation to Orange County, to Disneyland, what do these kids do? The parents are busy working at Disneyland to make other kids’ dreams come true, but what are theirkids doing?

And, you know, that’s the important thing about this movie: it’s the working poor. These are people who have jobs.

Did you come away with a sense of what should be done about this?

Well, we had a screening in Washington two nights ago. I’m not an expert on any of this stuff, but we had lots of people there who know about the subject, and I started to pick up on some of the things that they were saying. They were saying, “You could have made this movie in any zip code in America.”

This is a national epidemic. The recession forced a lot of people onto the streets, and the answer is affordable housing. You have to raise the wages of the people who work in these low-paying jobs, and you have to make affordable housing available. It’s not that complicated. 

Alexandra PelosiSo do you want your film to spur people to action? What are your hopes for it?

I hope that these kids get a roof over their heads. Look, I’m not a politician, but the politicians all say this is the greatest country on earth. If that’s true, then people working more than 40 hours a week deserve a roof over their head, and a meal before they go to bed at night. Kids in America shouldn’t line up in soup kitchens. Call me crazy. Call me a political activist, but that sounds like a no-brainer for the greatest country on earth.

There seem to be two camps in documentaries these days. There’s the documentary film as advocacy, which is the approach in many of the highest-profile docs. And there’s the documentary as journalism, which is a more measured approach. Do you stand on one side of that line or the other?

I don’t. You don’t see any talking heads in the movie, you don’t see any agenda. I’m just trying to show you that it exists. Because when I told people that I was making a movie about homeless kids in Orange County, the first thing they said was, “There are homeless kids in Orange County?” I think people are surprised just to know they exist, and that’s the beginning of it.

First we have to find out what the problem is. That’s all I’m trying to do, outline the problem. I don’t have all the answers. That’s above my pay grade.

It’s always tricky to pull out old quotes, but in the past you were once reported to have said that the media is the biggest problem in America right now. Do you still think that?

Well, it’s all context. I shouldn’t have said “the media,” that was stupid, because it’s not all media. But there is a problem. I was just in Washington, and I did one interview, and they said, “Okay, this is about the fight in the Senate about extending unemployment benefits?” I said “No, no, it’s not.” And they were like, “Yes, yes, it is.” They were trying to get me to say things about Obama and the Senate and unemployment benefits.

You know, you have a nice conversation, and then they take one little thing and it gets put on Drudge Report, like “PELOSI SAYS!” I fee; like a lot of things, just to get attention, have to be sensational.

Your last name is certainly going to get you attention, for better and for worse.

Yeah, it’s hard. My good friend Campbell Brown told me a long time ago, when my mother became speaker, that everything I do will be prejudged because of my last name. And I don’t think that’s fair, because I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I was doing it before she was speaker, and I’ll be doing it long after she’s speaker.

I mean, I’m 40 years old. It’s not like I’m 16 and I’m sitting at home at the dinner table with my mother asking her what she thinks of my movies.