Photo credit: tetiana.photographer / Shutterstock.com
By all measures we are living in an era defined by housing crises, a flood of human habitat destruction. The losses are both economic and environmental. Over 17 million people in 2018 alone were displaced from their homes because of climate change–associated disasters, according to the United Nations. Here in the United States, the problem, caused by a combination of rising rents and a frayed social safety net, is almost certainly set to get worse. At the end of December, the United States Federal Government’s moratorium on housing evictions will expire, creating what the New York Times predicts will be an “eviction tsunami” throughout the United States.
New York City–based filmmaker Swetha Regunathan often makes films about people caught in the throes of the worldwide homelessness crisis. Her work is varied — her latest work Sundarbans, soon entering production, is a magical-realist drama about the rapidly sinking delta mangrove forest at the mouth of the Ganges River in the Bay of Bengal. But in many of her films, she explores why people leave their homes, how they make new homes, and what they feel about the idea of home.
In the short documentary If There Is Light, Regunathan follows a close-knit African-American family who have recently migrated from the South to New York City, only to become snared in the city’s inadequate shelter system. The Blackmon family’s teenage daughter Janiyah narrates her family’s struggle to find available, affordable, and adequate housing, and the colossal barriers that stand between the family and a stable place to call home.
Regunathan’s films bear out the urgent reality that home — as place and as concept, as shelter and as structure of social belonging, as physiological human need and as place of physical safety — is an economically, structurally, and ecologically precarious idea for increasing numbers of people, especially people of color, women, and young people. When homes disappear or become untenable, people are forced to make new homes, new stories, and new meanings about these places and themselves. Regunathan’s films do the invaluable work of showing us that our past and present dreams of home persuasively compel urgent action today for our collective future.
In November, I got the chance to sit down with Dr. Regunathan at a virtual meeting at Bard College. We talked about what the Sundarbans have in common with her own childhood migration from Pondicherry, India, to Queens, how the richness of immigrant neighborhoods have made New York a film mecca, and why she thinks filmmaking is like writing history.
Jeanette A. Estruth [JAE]: How does the experience of being an immigrant and a woman of color impact the kinds of stories you tell?
Swetha Regunathan [SR]: I think a lot of really important groundwork is being laid by more diverse filmmakers, and often you hear “I never saw someone who looked like me doing such-and-such,” or in “this role.” The onus often falls on POC filmmakers to reverse this lack of representation. But I think it’s important to go beyond mere substitutional logic. It’s great to have a black superhero or a Pakistani-American superhero. It’s great to see a young Indian-American actress playing a teenager with sexual desire, on, for instance, Netflix’s Never Have I Ever.
But let’s also challenge the structure that pushes the same narratives on us. Like, what does it actually mean to extract a white teen girl from that role and plug in an affluent and kind of stereotypically overachieving South-Asian girl? Without focusing on any one role or show or movie, I think it’s time to blast open this narrative of unfettered ambition and success, this “American Dream”-ness burden, and investigate what’s underneath. What is at the root of, say, South Asian obsession with careerism and prestige? Why must all POCs take on the burden of performing a neat, clean, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative? When I produced my film about a black family living in New York City’s shelter system, the question we kept getting from executive producers was, “Can you show her striving?” [The mother] wasn’t allowed to be depressed and stagnant and stuck, because there was a fear of playing into racist tropes. But you’d likely never hear someone say, “Oh, that woman and mother of three isn’t even trying — it’s because she’s white.”
JAE: Do you see any similarities between the work of a historian and the work of a filmmaker?
SR: It’s a fantastic analogy. So I think the question becomes, “What are we trying to do with our work?” A historian wants to understand the past, the cause and effect of historical phenomena, they want to provide a narrative for how and why things unfolded the way they did. But the challenge is to think outside of teleology, right? In sifting through this data, whether it’s material or discursive, a historian cannot assume the Vietnam War is going to start. In your case, Jeannette, you can’t tell a story about the growth of Silicon Valley if you assume it’s going to become the center of the universe for tech. It gets in the way of making the story feel alive and as though the key characters had agency.
I think it’s very much the same for a filmmaker, whether it’s very palpable with doc where the story comes together in the edit, or in narrative, where you’re at liberty to present things not just as they are but as how they could be. I think this is where historiography and storytelling in any medium are so closely aligned, right? The power is in giving breath to the counterfactual. How things could have gone. People want to feel like they can change the course of their lives, and I think a good story or film certainly delivers that promise.
And lastly, more simply, doing your research is a super important part of the creative journey. Especially if it’s a world I’m not native to or from. For some filmmakers that looks like going to a place or a person and living in that world for an amount of time, understanding the patterns and rhythms of that place. Understanding that people don’t hug everywhere in the world for the same reasons; they don’t eat the same way; they don’t structure their days the same way.
And we’re so conditioned to Eurocentric and Anglocentric forms of expression and ideology, it’s much more challenging than you might realize to represent new or underrepresented worlds without slipping into ethnography. I always remember something Gayatri Spivak explained in one of her seminars at Columbia, in a postcolonial critique of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, arguably one of the most famous poems in the English language. “April is the cruelest month,” is the first line. But the irony of that line only rings if you’re from the northern hemisphere, from the northern climes. So I think the question becomes, how do we as storytellers decolonize narrative? How do we change up metaphors and symbols and signifiers entirely in a way that yes, educates, but also moves emotionally and feels universal and human and just as familiar as a Eurocentric structure of meaning?
JAE: You were born in Pondicherry, India, but grew up in Queens and New Jersey. How does being from New York shape your filmmaking outlook and creative point of view?
SR: The New York City metro area is an amazing place to be a filmmaker, but it’s an even more amazing place to be a student. To give some background on my trajectory, I grew up in Queens and New Jersey went to college in New York City and worked in publishing before leaving the city to do my doctorate at Brown. And then I came back to do my M.F.A. at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
There’s a good reason New York is the mecca of American independent film, a counter to Los Angeles. New York films seem, to me, to be more character-driven, simply because there are so many people around.
I’ve always been very interested in place and how it plays a role in our personal histories. It is a classic immigrant thought experiment to imagine my life if my parents had stayed in India, or in Montreal where they first immigrated to. But I’m very much a product of the Northeast, and there are several ways this comes into play.
I focus on immigration and identity, minority communities, and people of color. But more importantly, I focus on how these communities interact with one another. New York City is such a testing ground for Americanness and assimilation. You’re supposed to immigrate to the United States, find and live in your ethnic enclave, move out to the suburbs, and become absorbed into mainstream culture.
We’re so used to New York filmmakers also giving us these narratives about particularities of different communities — Italian Americans from Scorsese, African Americans from Spike Lee, Woody Allen’s Upper West Side Jews, and so on. And even more, like Eliza Hittman’s Brighton Beach. In a way, New York film comes to stand in for global cinema. So in a way, this kind of ethnographic filmmaking that New York is a playground for is part of the tradition I want to work in.
But New York is also about the underbelly and ugliness — and I really want to tell stories about the dark corners of the South Asian-American experience.
JAE: Is the city different than when you grew up in it? And if so, how does that shape you as a filmmaker?
SR: There is of course the increased Disneyfication and commercialization. I do remember squeegee men as a kid, and more crime. For instance, my father was attacked on a walk home from the subway in Queens. And I think superficially this is the story we tell about New York City over the last three decades: It’s gotten safer, cleaner, more commercial, less seedy, and less terrifying to tourists.
You watch most movies from the 1980s, and the American city is truly where wanton and reckless violence lives. There’s a hilarious line from Adventures in Babysitting: “I don’t have to be nice, I’m from the city.” But in the process of becoming shinier, I think underlying problems have only gotten worse — houselessness among families, in particular, has skyrocketed and affordable housing is in low supply.
New York is less and less a place where you can fail with impunity. It’s becoming a place where one has to have already “made it.” Where one is afraid to take risks because failure means eviction or going back home. As a filmmaker this also makes me think even more closely about what it means to fail if you’re part of the independent film world in New York City.
And it also makes nostalgia a very palpable and real force in my work. Of course, nostalgia is not exclusive to any one place but New Yorkers are famously often waxing nostalgic because it’s a city of such rapid and accelerated change.
JAE: To this point, can you talk about your work in New York City’s shelters for the unhoused?
SR: So the director of If There Is Light, Haley Anderson, who is a good friend of mine, approached me to produce a short doc that would follow a houseless teen girl. I like to use the word houseless rather than homeless because houseless reminds us how this is fundamentally an issue about material barriers. In a way it felt like our subjects weren’t homeless because they had each other, they had family. They had all the social connections of a home, but they didn’t have a physical structure they could call their own.
And this more expansive category might be useful because there’s a real and invisible epidemic of houselessness in this country. There are something like 100,000 homeless students in the New York City public school system alone. They’re not living on the streets, they’re living at the mercy of a centralized government agency that can give them just a few hours’ notice that they have to up and move to a different shelter across town — like from Staten Island to Queens.
If There Is Light was an incredibly challenging project not only because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter, but because it hinged entirely on the issue of access. If you’re a documentarian you know how important this is to have secure and consistent access to your subjects. And this is tricky when your subjects live in shelters. There’s very tight security about who can enter and exit the facilities. Absolutely no cameras are allowed. And on top of that, our subjects face their own hurdles when it comes to stability within the system.
JAE: What did you learn about housing affordability?
SR: In terms of policy, I want to speak in detail because I think most people don’t know.
I’ll speak about the Section 8 voucher system. A government-sponsored program, Section 8 provides housing cost assistance to low-income families, individuals with disabilities, and the elderly. Many cities, including New York City, offer this program to residents. Section 8 bases eligibility on annual gross income and household size. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) program has an income limit of $33,400 for a single person and $47,700 for a family of four.
The Section 8 voucher program in New York City has a long waitlist, and the NYCHA actually hasn’t accepted any new applicants since December of 2009. However, those who submitted their applications before then may still be eligible to receive vouchers. After being accepted into the program, individuals will receive a voucher that they can use to start their search for Section 8 apartments in NYC. When accepting these vouchers, landlords will receive the renter’s portion of the monthly rent from them and the subsidized portion of the monthly rent from the government agency that issued the voucher.
It’s really tough because it’s designed to enable a family to rent a house or apartment and move to a better neighborhood, but landlords are biased against it. Most of the landlords whom researchers called said they didn’t take vouchers. Some of those who agreed to show their unit to a voucher holder stood the renter up. Even though it’s illegal to deny housing.
And then I learned that if you need shelter you have to report to PATH in the Bronx every 10 days to renew your spot. And this is not guaranteed. Often families are shuffled around to other shelters. A lot of shelters are converted motels and hotels. But there’s very little time to get up and move.
JAE: What would you like to see in the future in terms of affordable housing?
SR: As someone who doesn’t work in social services or on a policy level, I have thoughts on this that center much more on visibility and how we as scholars, writers, filmmakers can uncover why so many people, particularly families, continue to be trapped in these cycles. And of course, it varies by case, context, and family.
But one major piece of the puzzle that is missing is support networks. New York City has some, but smaller cities have fewer. For example, our subject Kena went to the hospital. Her daughters stayed with her the whole time. No one was there to ask if the girls needed a shower, there were no options for taking them back to the shelter, and there are rules about who’s allowed into the shelter. For instance, you’re not allowed to leave minors unattended in the shelter. But what is she to do when she gets a job and has to go to work?
We came across a fantastic program run by an amazing man at the Department of Education. It is called ASET/SIMBA, and it is for houseless youth in the New York City school system. They run after school programs exclusively for unhoused teens, and offer classes on weekends, skills training, college counseling, etc.
So to answer your question, I don’t think there’s a future for affordable housing to do what it’s intended to do, which is lift families out of poverty and homelessness — without also providing the resources that someone in stable, or middle-class, or affluent housing also has. Housing, healthcare, and education form a circle here. Without stable housing it’s virtually impossible to stay healthy, without staying healthy it’s impossible to find a job, without a job it’s impossible to convince a landlord to rent their apartment to you. It’s a complex problem, and I’m just fortunate that this family gave me a glimpse into what they’ve been through and what so many go through.
JAE: Thank you, Swetha. Can you talk a little bit about your next project?
SR: Of course. I’m currently developing a feature set in the Sundarbans region of West Bengal, India. I became fascinated with this place when I first learned about it. It is a major site of climate change and a huge number of refugees over the next few decades. It’s a delta region that straddles West Bengal and Bangladesh, with high poverty. People make a living by fishing and honey-collecting. But it’s also the largest mangrove forest in the world, and mangroves act as a natural defense against soil erosion and storm surge. They also store large amounts of carbon.
The final piece of the puzzle here is that the Sundarbans is home to a sizeable but diminishing Bengal tiger population, and the forest is famous for these “man-eaters” — the only tigers in the world who attack humans. There are many stories about these often fatal encounters and the creation of “tiger widows.” There are theories about the saltwater making them go crazy, legends around the local deity. So the mangroves are obviously a very lush and evocative setting, almost on a mythic register. What I want to do with this film is to explore what this kind of inevitable erosion of the land looks like on a human scale.
How does a land that’s perhaps sinking or disappearing affect identity? There’s a beautiful philosophical term coined by an ecological theorist: solastalgia — the feeling of homesickness for a place in which one already lives. I think it beautifully captures how so many of us feel about places and natural environments and entire species that will be irrevocably changed or killed off in our own lifetimes. I think this is the next kind of phase for me when it comes to the work I make: how to put identity in conversation with the natural world and with the idea of conservation.
As a child of immigrants, I can say that my parents’ project of assimilation, and that of many immigrant parents, is in fact a project of conservation. And this struggle we have as humans between the idea of adapting and the idea of conserving, the idea of planning for our own inevitable disappearance while conserving who we are in some intangible way — that’s what I’m digging into and emotionally connected to.
Jeannette Estruth is an assistant professor of history at Bard College, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman-Klein Center.