DENVER — In 2017, residents of the Denver Meadows Mobile Home Park in Aurora learned they were being evicted. They owned their homes. The land they sat on, however, belonged to a man named Shawn Lustigman. And Lustigman was looking to sell.
Anyone who followed the story in the local news knows how it ended. Those with an interest (especially an interest rooted in personal experience) in this particular aspect of the affordable housing crisis could do worse than spending 85 minutes with "A Decent Home," a documentary premiering this November at the Denver Film Festival.
The film welcomes us into the homes of people fighting desperately to hang on to the lives they've built. It also takes us inside the system that disadvantages them, the people who profit from it, and those who seek to change it. Director Sara Terry doesn't attempt to hide who's side she's on. The stories from Denver Meadows are heart wrenching and the heart of the film. Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano's successful bids for Aurora City Council are portrayed as cause for hope. A mobile home investor named Frank Rolfe guides would-be landlords on an awkward, almost zoo-like tour and gives a speech so callous it could make Gordon Gekko grimace.
Certain sections work better than others. The first half is much more engrossing than the second. Terry knows where to put the camera to make a home feel warm and an empty space cold. But while she cannily underplays the visuals, she's failed by narration the film could have done without and musical selections that hit the point too hard. Still, the story is a worthy one and Terry is plenty capable of telling it.
Denver7's Jon Ewing sat down with director Sara Terry ahead of the film's debut. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I realized how long you'd been working on this movie when I saw that Bob Legare was still mayor of Aurora. And I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, she's been working on this movie for years.' Now, you're finally at the finish line. I imagine you're beyond excited for people to see it.
Six and-a-half years, I've been working on this film. It started in May 2015, when, believe it or not, I wrote a funding proposal and actually used the words 'underreported affordable housing crisis,' like, that's how long ago it was.
And that really was the case in 2015. Nobody was paying attention. So you know, it's...—I'm a documentary filmmaker, these are often labors of love. It takes a long time to make documentary films when you don't have full funding in place at the beginning. But the film grew as people started to get the issue and when John Oliver licensed some of my footage for his hard-hitting piece. For it to be coming out now and to be coming out in the city that's the main story of the film, that's the heart of the film. I couldn't be more excited.
The John Oliver effect is a real thing! It's a real thing in journalism. Like, journalists can do stories for five years and nothing happens, but when Oliver puts it on, suddenly stuff starts to shift.
It's pretty interesting, right? You know, my background is journalism, and so I had this film that I was working on. It's the first film on mobile home parks, and still is. But I had this page one mentality in my head, right? Because like, my background is print reporting. And that's where I started. And I was just like, 'This is my story.' You know, like, 'I'm going to be the first one to break it.' And then, just before John's piece ran, there was a report that triggered something. NPR did something. The Washington Post did something. And I'm like, pulling my hair out going, 'My page one story!' And then John Oliver's show wanted to license the footage. And my team was like, 'Of course we want to do that.' Because, you know, I was credited on screen. And a really wonderful filmmaker named Kirby Dick, who's an executive producer on the film said, 'Sarah, it's okay. Trust me.' He said, 'In the documentary film world, it doesn't matter that you're first, what matters now is that John Oliver has done a piece and funders are going to go, 'Oh, that's a great idea!' And the first major grants came in ten days after John Oliver's piece.
We talk about affordable housing, literally, on a daily basis here in Denver. Because, you know, there is no affordable housing. I think most of the time we're talking about apartments or rentals. Is it strange we don't talk about the mobile home community as much?
Yeah, it is. And that's actually the very first goal of mine as a filmmaker, was to break the stereotypes and to help people understand that the pejorative term "trailer trash" should no longer be used and should have never be used. But it's still the one thing people can drop and nobody calls them out on it. I mean, 20 million Americans live in mobile homes. It's the first step up on the ladder of homeownership, you know, and it's the most vulnerable. You own your home, and you rent the land you live on if you're in a mobile home park. So, yeah, this housing matters, we should care about it.
There are a couple of shots in this movie I really liked...
Just a couple!?
No, no. There were multiple good shots. There were a couple I wrote down though. One is the amount of land you show in front of the Aurora city building, that it's just empty space all around. And the other was... I love how you framed the one couple's home. It's very homey, very rich. The framing is handling it in a certain way. I'm assuming those were both intentional choices.
I'm so glad you saw them and you noted them as intentional. I am, at heart, a documentary photographer. Visual literacy is at the heart of what I do. And this is the first film — I've directed two — but this is the first one that I was the cinematographer on.
So yes, virtually every image is intentional. In every home I entered, I wanted to show you the heart of home. I wanted to show you the love. I wanted to show you the family. I wanted to show you gatherings and cooking and like, the little details that make home, like the stove that says "joy," you know? I'm just removing...—I want to just push away, like, all the stereotypes. That drove every shot when I was inside a home because there's so much pride in those homes.
And yeah, the Aurora City Hall shot. We're talking about a city that is half built out. Like, half of that city is empty land. And Aurora couldn't find a solution to save Denver Meadows and I am leading you in those spaces and visually trying to help you stop and think about that, like, 'Wait a minute.'
Were there any films or filmmakers you looked to for inspiration?
You know, I think some of Terrence Malick's work on landscape. In terms of respect for the characters — who might be considered by some to be lower income — I looked at "My Brother's Keeper," an amazing documentary which is so full of respect for people.
A lot of hope is put into the election of Juan Marcano and Alison Coombs and that this would be a step in the right direction for Aurora. Do you still feel that optimism?
I would think that's a really good question for Alison and Juan. I spoke to Alison last fall at one point and I know she said, 'Wow, it's... it's a lot harder when you're in office to get things to change, you know?' Just the very nature of the system is difficult. My hope remains constant in the people all over the country who are acting locally, because that's where this particular issue of affordable housing and creating the zoning and all those things are. It's a local issue. So I don't think Alison or Juan are like, burned out or given up or become part of the system. I'm still hopeful. They might tell you like, 'Holy moly, you know, it's more work than we thought it would be.'
You have a scene of a seminar in this movie with a guy named Frank Rolfe that is just, like, 'Oh my God. I can't believe he's saying this stuff.' It's so degrading, to talk about another human being's home the way he does. Were you surprised he was just that open about it?
On one level, Frank Rolfe is the reason I started the film. I read an article in The Guardian in 2015 that was about a class at Mobile Home University. And that's what made me sort of sit up straight and put my feet on the floor and go, 'Wow, I need to do this.' I was filming that seminar six weeks after I read the article and I had begun, you know, the six and-a-half years of this work.
I think the film has like three or four key people who kind of represent the buyer side, or, you know, the business side of things, who say things that I think are pretty shocking. I'm not provoking anybody. I'm not tricking anybody, right? I just am letting people speak. They used to invite anybody, you know, any press into those seminars. I don't know if they do anymore. I don't know what they'll do after they see the film. He's (Rolfe) a nice guy. But he says, like, just outrageous things.
Last question: What are your hopes for this movie? Are you hoping enough people see it to where it makes an impact or do you just want to get this thing on Netflix?
I have always wanted all of my work to start conversations. There's an impact campaign that's going along with this film that we expect to have a huge impact, and it includes changing perceptions. By that I mean that there's a convening the day of the premiere. We're going to be doing a mobile home park screening tour in several parts of the country, which will launch in Colorado, because the Colorado Health Foundation is supporting our engagement campaign. Basically, my dream for the film is that it supports the work of all these people, because like labor knows, if you don't have an affordable house, it doesn't matter if you have a job, you know, you can't pay your medical bills, you don't get checkups at the doctor. The America I love can't continue the way it is right now with this huge wealth gap. So yeah, we're gonna get the film out and all over the place.
A Decent Home premieres Saturday, November 6 at 4 p.m. at the Sie Film Center on East Colfax. You can purchase tickets through the Denver Film Festival's website.