On the publicity tour for her latest documentary, Alexandra Pelosi seems surprised when she’s actually asked about … her project.
That’s because, in contrast to her past work, which cast amusing and controversial spotlights on the past three presidential campaigns and on the evangelical movement, her latest, “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County,” debuting on July 26, is what she calls “tragic.”
With her small HD camera, the vet filmmaker and daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spent the summer of 2009 at six rundown motels to follow the nomadic lives of a handful of children and their families, living temporarily in the one-room quarters and struggling to keep from having to sleep in parks.
Pelosi was drawn to the contrast of their lives unfolding in the shadow of Disneyland and in one of the richest counties in the country, as well as to the fact that almost all of the parents she talked to have jobs: Nurses, fast-food workers, Disneyland parking attendants.
“I think it is really criminal in a way,” Pelosi says. “But I don’t want to be political, because I know there is not a lot of interest in homeless kids, compared to Lindsay Lohan going to jail overnight.”
The fact that this is about the working poor, and not those on welfare, is just the type of thing that would inject the project into the debate over the extension of unemployment benefits, or aid to the poor during the Great Recession. Pelosi admits she doesn’t have the stomach for Michael Moore-like crusading, and is hesitant to “get on a soapbox.”
But it also may not make much difference given the subject matter in “Motel Kids.” The Obama administration recently announced a plan to alleviate homelessness, but it got virtually no attention.
Her past projects, like “Journeys With George,” about the 2000 campaign trail, or “Friends of God,” about the evangelical movement and one of its leaders, Ted Haggard, had their laugh-out-loud moments. By contrast, she says, “The Motel Kids of Orange County” is a complete departure.
“There is nothing funny,” she says.
Some scenes feature children rummaging in Dumpsters for the belongings of evicted motel tenants, or another kid recounting what happened to her mother’s boyfriend: He was beaten to death. But a great deal of time is spent listening to the children as they express hope for their future but face ever-increasing odds.
As she interviewed families, never once did anyone start some kind of Washington policy debate, or “noise,” as she calls it.
“Those kids don’t have an audience,” Pelosi says. “Who wants to watch homeless kids? That is what is so sad about what has happened to American politics. Now it is just, ‘I love her. I hate her.’ It is just Bill O’Reilly vs. Rachel Maddow. Homeless kids have no shot. It is not sexy.”
So why do it?
She says that when she and her husband, Dutch journalist Michiel Vos, had two children of their own in the last few years, “you start to see the world through the eyes of your kids,” she says. Because they have no nanny, they traveled with her, living in motels and eating in soup kitchens as she did her work.
“Hopefully what this movie will do is change the image of homelessness,” she says. “You will think of homeless as a 6-year-old girl, and not a 60-year-old man drunk on your street corner.”