For one night, Alexandra Pelosi did something that’s been more and more elusive in her hometown of San Francisco as of late – bring together the entire community.
“The person being evicted was sitting next to the guy who’s flipping houses to make a profit. That’s America,” says Pelosi, of the recent Bay Area premiere of her latest documentary for HBO, “San Francisco 2.0.””I felt like I was an ambassador holding court over a huge group therapy session.”
Pelosi, who now lives in Manhattan (but insists she’ll be back in the Bay Area for Thanksgiving), once again has found a way to tackle a major issue in a personal way, returning to the city of her youth and finding just how dramatically it has changed. As she acknowledges at the start of “San Francisco 2.0,” the Bay Area has always been a living organism unto itself, initially transformed by the gold rush and since becoming a countercultural mecca, aligning itself against whichever way the wind is blowing elsewhere. In recent years, however, a second gold rush has brought more uniformity to the city as an influx of software and app developers from Silicon Valley have settled in and sought to remake San Francisco in their own image, bringing innovation and raising the rent so high that few original tenants can keep continuing to live there.
“San Francisco 2.0” covers a lot of ground for a city spanning just 46 square miles, investigating what role the local government played in facilitating such a cultural shift with interviews with nearly every SF mayor for the past 30 years and speaking with San Franciscans of every income level to see just how profound a cultural shift has occurred. Once again, Pelosi disarms her subjects as she first did in 2000 when she charmed then-presidential candidate George W. Bush on the campaign trail in “Journeys with George,” and working on a larger-scale project, uses the candid responses she gathers to create an unvarnished and vibrant look at a city in transition that very well could be a bellwether for the entire country, if not the world. Shortly before the film premieres, Pelosi spoke about how she was inspired to turn the camera on her hometown, tackling the impact of government head-on and why she resists a bigger camera crew.
How did you get interested in this?
I’m from San Francisco, and everybody has a special place in their heart for their hometown, right? I spend a lot of time there because my family lives there, and the noise of my friends complaining about how the town has been taken over by the techies just keeps getting louder and louder. I always thought it would be an interesting film about gentrification and how there’s this new segregation in America between the rich and the poor. It wasn’t until I went to see Robert Reich do a speech at UC Berkeley that I thought of doing something about it. He’s a brilliant economist and he talks about the impact of the so-called sharing economy – how Darwinian it is and how there is no social contract any more and there’s supposed to be rules in society. When I heard him give [that speech], I thought about how San Francisco is a microcosm of what’s happening in America.
You see this in every big city in the world. San Francisco is exactly where you can see the fight that is happening now about the rich who want to live in cities and they’re pushing out the people who have been living there for generations, so there’s this bigger question about who gets to live in the big city? [Is it only] rich people who can buy their way in? We need to middle class to sustain the city. You need teachers and fireman and police officers to be able to protect you if you live in the city and they can’t afford to live there. Is that fair? Those are the kind of questions I was trying to tackle in this.
Was there a moment for you personally before making this film that you realized the city had changed in a way that perhaps you hadn’t seen before?
The way I explain it is that I have kids and when I’m with my kids, I don’t notice how much they grow on a daily basis. It’s so gradual. When I see other people’s kids, I’m like “Wow, you really got big.” I visit San Francisco on a regular basis and I noticed how it’s been changing gradually, but outsiders can really hold up a mirror and show you how you look, I [now] look at it as a tourist in a way. I come in and I notice the change a lot more than people who drive by the stuff every day. My friends have been pushed out [of the city]. Artists have been pushed out, documentary artists [in particular]. Artisans been pushed out. It’s sort of interesting. Then when you start to hear the stories about how family members have this [terrible drive] to work, like “Oh, the school teacher has to commute an hour-and-a-half a day to teach Kindergarten,” you’re like, “Wow. That doesn’t seem fair.”
So it was seeing it through the stories of the people I know. Over time, it’s just been building and building and it’s only getting worse. Then you have the whole problem with the sharing economy – this whole idea that the people that want to try to stay in the city have to become a taxi driver at night to be able to stay in the city – and there’s this whole debate about the sharing economy and making it fair. You need rules for society to work. That’s why I focused on the politicians. You need the leaders to decide, “Okay, what are the rules going to be so that society can be fair for everyone?” You don’t want the tech companies to buy the rules or write them. You want real people to be able to be a part of the conversation, so it was important to pay attention to the politicians because they are the ones that have to come up with the solutions.
Although many of your films have indirectly dealt with government, was it interesting for you to tackle head on?
That’s why I did it from that perspective. I know it’s en vogue to hate politicians, but politicians actually make decisions that matter in your everyday life and I thought it was important to talk to them. They’re the ones that are going to be writing the new rules. They matter. In that way, we are a very political film. I make political films. This isn’t just about, “Boo-hoo, [I’m] a filmmaker that can’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore or my musician friends can’t afford San Francisco. It’s much bigger than that. It’s about the social contract and what is the price of change? All this progress is great, but there’s a dark side. We’re all looking to San Francisco as the progressive capital of the world to tell us what the rules are going to be and there’s an election in November. If you want to know what the new American economic landscape looks like, show up on election day.
Was it different to focus on a city rather than an individual or a few?
Geographically, it was much more desirable. [laughs] I got to just park myself in San Francisco. On the down side, you didn’t have a lot of action. You’re not taking a road trip. There’s not any new places, new faces and I suppose it’s hard to get people to care about San Francisco. But what’s happening in San Francisco is what is happening all over the country. We’re looking to San Francisco to lead us into the next era of the American economy. But what does America make anymore? This country is dying. We don’t even make our iPhones here. The only thing we make are the apps. We have to be grateful to make something. They’re holding up the economy. But the scale of America in terms of the economy we’ve going all the way to the bottom of the list now.
Even though the ambition of your films has grown, it’s always been just you behind the camera, asking questions directly. There’s obviously a connection there with your subjects you can’t get otherwise, but have you ever been tempted to hire a bigger crew?
I feel like when you show up with a camera crew, it changes the conversation. When you show up with lights and a microphone, I feel like everyone starts acting like they’re on TV and they’re on their best behavior. It’s hard to get an actual human moment out of people when you have a camera in their face. I also think people have a tendency to not want to talk to the camera. That’s why I still use a small, handheld camera, so a lot of people don’t get scared.
It’s funny. This morning, I called some of the people that are in the film to tell them they’re going to be on HBO on Monday night. They were like, “Really?” I’m like, “What did you think? I said I was from HBO. Didn’t you Google me?” People are still surprised when they find out that I was really, actually making a movie. They thought I was hanging out with them. II’m working on my 10th HBO documentary right now, about how we fund our presidential election, and I’m always surprised that when I show up people are like, “You’re a kid with a camera. You’re not a documentary filmmaker.” [laughs] I’m thinking I’m going to have to hire an entourage to show up with me, so people will take me seriously.