Hotel U.S.A.

Filmmaker Q&A with Directors Andrea Meller and Marisa Pearl

Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

Andrea: One of my very favorite films (and filmmakers) is To Be and To Have by Nicolas Philibert, and it was a source of inspiration for me while making Hotel U.S.A. The film, about a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, follows its participants with incredible intimacy while still retaining a sense of formal distance. Viewing the film, you feel as though you are almost hovering above the schoolhouse – able to observe its going-ons with more perspective than if you were actually there. But for me, what is most powerful about the film is that despite its formality and the distance the camera creates, the story and emotions are intensely present. It’s an incredible example of the power of verite in which the love the filmmaker has for the subject comes through. I thought of this film often when preparing for Hotel U.S.A. and the challenge of capturing deep emotions and intimacy purely though verite filmmaking.

Marisa: I cherish “The Gleaners and I” and other documentaries by the great Agnes Varda. Her films are infused with curiosity and humor, two qualities I try to bring to my work as a filmmaker. A curious and respectful spirit is essential in approaching people and asking them to share their slice of life with you.


What motivated you to make this film?

We had both independently read an article in the New York Times about the process of resettling refugees in the US and how many of the newcomers spend their first night in this country in an airport motel. At the time, the Iraq War was happening and the question of America’s responsibility to all of the newly created refugees kept coming up. As filmmakers with family histories of immigration and persecution, we knew that we wanted to address the issue if our country’s role in assisting refugees. And the motel had the added benefit of being a striking visual space that because of its bland “anywhereness” could help us focus on capturing the raw emotions and physical responses to resettlement.

We didn’t want to make a didactic or informational film; we wanted to make something that would spark emotional connections between viewers and participants. Our intention was to show that issues of refugee resettlement aren’t somewhere far away, they are happening everywhere, in the most neutral of areas: the airport motel. “Refugees” could be any of us, any viewer under different circumstances; they get tired traveling on planes, want the food they are familiar with, are concerned about their children’s futures. So the motivation was to bring all of these issues related to resettlement closer to home – both geographically and emotionally.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

We filmed on the Sony EX1. We used a wireless lavalier when possible, but most of the time we had a boom with a shotgun mic attached. We kept both our crew size and equipment package small and contained so that we could be as unobtrusive as possible.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story. 

Partially based on budgetary limitations, but mainly to create a sense of trust and intimacy with the people we filmed, we kept our crew size very small. The largest crew size we had was 3, Kathy Huang on camera, Andrea on sound, and Marisa directing/producing. And often it was just the two of us, Andrea on camera and Marisa on sound with both of directing/producing. Not having a large crew was a necessity in the small hotel rooms and incredibly helpful in allowing us to fade into the background while observing and filming.

During production, we also held our shots for much longer than usual. While this isn’t always reflected in the final piece, the sensation of just sitting and watching, letting things unfold before us with patience, really reflected and also affected the way we told the story. We found that so much could be said just by letting the camera stay on someone’s face a little longer than usual as they let their new reality settle in.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

While we had done a lot of pre-production in order to be able to film the newly arriving refugees and worked closely with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to secure access, we really couldn’t prepare for what was going to happen inside of the hotel rooms. We knew we wanted to show the human element of refugee resettlement, but we didn’t know what specific things would happen – if people would be alone, in families, would talk, would do anything in their rooms beyond sleep. Every moment we captured was like opening an oyster and not knowing if we’d find a pearl.

We did film interviews with several of the IOM workers as well as some of the newly arrived refugees, but we realized in the edit that the interviews and the information they could provide weren’t necessary to create an empathetic bond between the refugees and audience members. In the end, the story and our goals with it were very close to what we had envisioned at the start. While we took some detours along the creative process, like filming the interviews, we ended very close to where we had started.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film. 

By far, the most rewarding experience in making this film was when we were thanked by the people we filmed for listening to their stories. As filmmakers, you hope that your film will have an impact, either on an emotional level with audience member or concretely by sparking social or political change, but the main thing you are doing is telling a story. So to know that our participants were just grateful to have someone listen and make them feel seen was incredibly moving and rewarding for us.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

We think that even when making a social justice film where you are hoping to create change and activate people, the focus still has to be on telling a good story and the human component of your participants or characters. Your participants will be your strongest advocates for success in moving your viewers.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

Andrea: As filmmakers, we are able to inhabit so many different worlds. We can go behind the scenes of any place, any career, any relationship and experience what it feels like to be there and be a part of it. I love being able to travel or journey in this way and find the commonalities and the humanity of any situation. The way the world feels so big and so small at the same time.

Marisa: The opportunity to build relationships with people is a highlight of documentary filmmaking as is the creative sparks that fly in the edit room, weaving footage together to tell a story. The process of identifying moments in the footage that have a literary quality is invigorating.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?

Besides gear…Snacks! You never know where the day (or night) is going to take you, and having snacks on hand allows you to keep filming without losing energy or needing to stop.


Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.

Our very first step in the production of this film was flying from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey. While waiting in line to board the plane at LAX International Airport, Marisa noticed that we were standing behind the one and only Barbara Kopple, director of award-winning films on labor rights Harlan County and American Dream. Both of us are big fans of Kopple’s work, so we introduced ourselves and explained that we were just beginning the journey for Hotel U.S.A. While our chance encounter with one of our documentary idols was not directly related to the making of Hotel U.S.A., we thought it was a most auspicious start to the production of the film!


Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film and/or in your distribution/exhibition efforts?

One of the more unique obstacles we faced that was specific to the making and distribution of Hotel

U.S.A. involved security issues. In order to make this film, we worked closely with the staff of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the inter-governmental organization that manages the resettlement of refugees internationally. One of the challenges that came up in the post-production of Hotel U.S.A. was how to make sure that the hotel our participants were staying in was not going to be easily identifiable. This was due to safety concerns that the IOM had, especially given the current hard-line emotions and policy shifts centered on refugee resettlement in the US. For us, protecting the safety of future arriving refugees was not even a question, but we had to decide how to maintain our journalistic integrity as documentarians and erase any identifiable markers of the hotel. In the end, we decided to swap out shots when we could, and when we couldn’t, we “painted” over the hotel’s logo in a way that did not change the main content behind the images.


What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

We hope that audiences walk away with two main feelings after seeing Hotel U.S.A. – that refugees are people just like themselves and that resettlement is happening everywhere and is not some distant issue. We really want viewers to see the human elements of refugee resettlement, so for us, showing the universality of moments was extremely important. For example, showing a teenage girl concerned about her makeup or a mother making sure that the food she receives is good for her children are life moments that many can relate to. Hunger, tiredness, fear, concern for your children, sacrifice, the desire to work and to improve your situation, relief; these are all human emotions that anyone can relate to. We wanted to distil the refugee experience into these most simple emotions so that audience members could see themselves in the same situation. And by focusing on a hotel in the United States, we wanted to bring the issues related to refugees and resettlement closer to home.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

For post-screening discussions, we like to start very simply by asking audiences to think about what they would bring with them if they had to leave their home and had one duffel bag to bring. For us, this is a way to really bring home the goals we stated in the question above – to inspire viewers to see themselves in the shoes of the film’s participants. We then like to ask what moments from the film stood out to viewers. This usually sparks a dialogue about how they identify with what they’re seeing as well as what they have learned or what questions they have.

These conversations for us are a simple but effective way of addressing how the film can fit into current conversations regarding refugees. Hotel U.S.A. is not an informational documentary, but it is a film that can hopefully inspire moviegoers to see themselves reflected on the screen, just under different circumstances, and inspire them to take action in their own communities. And on a more macro level, we hope to inspire viewers to discuss how identity and nationality are created and how immigration and resettlement change those constructs.


Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?

Because a few years have passed since filming, we have gotten several updates from the film’s subjects about how their lives have changed since their first night in America. Agam, who is seen at the end of the film having arrived by himself, recently got married and is working at a cabinetry fabrication company. Prakash, who was 15 years old at the time of filming is now a University pre-med student in North Dakota and a refugee advocate. His parents, who in the film wonder about the jobs they will be able to find, both work at a fast food restaurant and recently bought their own house.

But on a more macro level, as a result of war, persecution, and natural disaster, more people are forced into becoming refugees than ever before. This was true while we were filming and is still true now. What’s changed since we filmed Hotel U.S.A. is the travel ban enacted by current President Trump affecting refugee admissions, the end of automatic parole for children in the CAM or Central American Minors program, the possible end of DACA, the new historically low cap on refugee admission to the U.S., as well as the surge in hateful rhetoric in our country.

All of these recent changes in refugee resettlement to the U.S. have magnified the need in getting refugee stories out into the world in order to increase support for refugee resettlement and humanize the plight of refugees overall.


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

There are myriad ways for people to get involved and support the resettlement of refugees. The simplest way to get involved is for people to make donations; either financial or of household items. People can also volunteer their time and knowledge, working to assist nonprofit agencies that focus on refugee issues and also directly with refugees, doing work such as tutoring, mentoring or driving people to doctor’s appointments or to the airport, for example. Another way for people to get involved is to open up their homes – Airbnb has started a program that makes it easy for people to take in refugees for a set amount of time.

We highly recommend that if people want to get further involved, they reach out to one of the organizations that already has an established infrastructure to help. The main organization is the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has chapters all across the U.S. Miry’s List is an easy way to make donations online via Amazon. Refugees Welcome enables individuals and groups to host dinner parties for refugees and non-refugees to gather together and build community. And sometimes in smaller communities, schools and libraries have newcomer or New American programs that accept volunteers as well.


Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.):

A director’s statement about Hotel U.S.A.

Article that inspired the documentary

Volunteer opportunities:

Miry’s List

Refugees Welcome to Dinner


© SIMA Academy