by Steve Gow Reel Recall: HOTLINE (2014)
Turn to the back pages of any weekly urban publication and you’re bound to discover a wealth of phone numbers…
Each promises everything from sex chat to suicide prevention and it’s a phenomenon director Tony Shaff not only became fascinated by in his 2014 doc Hotline, but even tasted first hand taking up the receiver on such services. In this week’s intriguing Reel Recall spotlight, we explore Shaff’s look at some of the world’s most popular hotlines and and replay a chat with the filmmaker from the movie’s Hot Docs premiere.
Steve Gow: Where did you come up with the idea to study phone hotlines?
Tony Shaff: Right out of college, my car broke down and I was desperate to fix my car. I was looking in the back of the LA Weekly and there were jobs where I could work from home as a telephone psychic. I applied for this job and worked for about six weeks as a telephone psychic – although I’m not psychic – and really loved the experience. Then I moved to New York and volunteered for a suicide prevention hotline for two years and during that time, I realized the similarities between the callers on the psychic hotline and the suicide hotline. At the time, I wasn’t thinking I’m going to make a film about this. I was just really enjoying the experience as much as you can, talking to people, hearing their stories and then down the line, I wanted to explore this and find out if other hotlines were having the same experiences and that’s when I branched out and started talking and seeing what other hotlines are out there; how they’re relevant today.
Director Tony Shaff
SG: Its interesting to see the similarity between the callers. Do you think the idea of a hotline is a by-product of the pressures of today’s media and pop-culture environment – especially given that you meet (celebrity psychic) Miss Cleo in this documentary?
TS: Right, well, there was a huge rise of these hotlines, these 1-900 numbers, that happened that we all remember in the 90’s, late-80s and those are the things that first come to mind but these hotlines – not just phone sex or suicide hotline or even things like the homework hotline which was one that was invented in Nashville, Tennessee – these are hotlines that are possibly affected by pop culture but also we’ve moved away from this idea of picking up the phone to call somebody. Sometimes its almost rude to call somebody now. You send them an email or send them a text message. But I think there’s this craving in humans to have this voice-to-voice communication. Picking up a phone and talking to a stranger is what hotlines provide now so maybe it’s a by-product of the fact that people don’t have those people they can turn and talk to.
SG: Jeff, One Lonely Guy is one subject in the film that speaks volumes to that in the film – someone who simply posted a sign and became so burdened with calls.
TS: He put up a flyer for his own therapy. He just wanted a friend. Its sort of like getting a dogwalker or getting your house cleaned, (he thought) ‘maybe I can get a friend off this flyer’. And what he found was that, not only were people trying to help him but the people trying to help him were people that needed help themselves so he just built these very temporary, very fleeting relationships with – you know, he’s said he’s had 150,000 calls since he hooked into that flyer – and that just shows you the complete need.
SG: Did you have any difficulty getting anybody on board? Because I could see some of these people being skeptical of a filmmaker coming in and asking a bunch of questions.
TS: The interesting thing about the people in the film is that they’re used to being people that listen to stories. They’re not used to being people that talk about their own stories. So having my own personal experience with hotlines and then talking about their experiences and giving them the opportunity to open and talk about things, I think they were almost shocked to hear themselves saying some of these experiences out loud because they are so used to just hearing other people’s problems. That’s not quite the answer (but) ya, it was difficult (finding people), I wanted to find a really diverse group of people (whether it was) the volunteer hotline or a little bit quirkier hotlines – the one man pastor down in Pennsylvania. He’s one guy as well; he gets 15 calls a day which is much different than Jeff. But that to everything to Samaritans which is a huge suicide prevention hotline in New York and they receive volumes of calls. So I think that people are, I don’t want to say protective but because it’s anonymous and confidential, there is a little bit of need to keep it private but its also about getting these services out there.
SG: Were there any people that you tried to reach out to that weren’t open to being in the film?
TS: There was the Butterball Turkey Hotline – I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that.
SG: No, I’m not.
TS: Every Thanksgiving, they have this turkey hotline where domestic engineers sit around and answer your turkey questions – whether you’re worried about burning the turkey or if that stuffing is cooked enough for Thanksgiving. We really wanted to have the Butterball Turkey Hotline but I think it just didn’t quite work out. There’s a very narrow window of opportunity with them; they open for one week out of the year. But that was one that I really wanted. I wanted to see if it wasn’t just getting tips on cooking turkeys but also that moral support of like, “I’m cooking dinner…”
SG: The stress!
TS: Ya, the stress! The holidays are very stressful. I wanted to see what that was like so we’ll see. I still think I’ll try and get in there. I want to see it for myself.
To watch the trailer for HOTLINE, view below:
HOTLINE Trailer from Hotline Documentary on Vimeo.