Game Girls – Interview with the Director

Across oceans and unknown to many, Skid Row is an area in Los Angeles famously known as the ‘homeless capital of the US’. In an intimate, unassuming documentary, Game Girls follows the lives of two women, Teri and Tiahna, skirting and moving on from life on Skid Row. Combining fly-on-the-wall observation and recurring workshops led by the filmmakers with residents of Skid Row to open up about what it really feels like in such a community, the documentary is at once accessible and enlightening.

Speaking to Ella Kemp, Alina Skrzeszewska shares a deeper insight into the project.

 

Ella

Why did you choose to focus on Skid Row, and on female homelessness particularly? What issues do you think face women specifically?

 

Alina

I had made several films about Skid Row before I made Game Girls. I first really got to know Skid Row on a more in-depth basis in 2006. I lived in one of the flophouse type hotels operating at the time, between 2006 and 2008. I was essentially making a film about my neighbours and those neighbours tended to be male, so it ended up being a film about men — and at that time I already knew that I wanted to make a film about women in the area. It just seemed so much more complicated to tackle that topic. For me it was always a question about how to represent women in an authentic way, because I didn’t want to represent them as victims. There was the question of how to show them authentically, because a lot of the women (not that men don’t) but women specifically come to the area having experienced so much trauma. People with PTSD can act kind of strange, or what seems strange to outsiders and people who don’t understand it, and I wanted to figure out how to translate that so it would make sense to an audience, and so that it would also be truthful, for me to even understand what it was.

 

Ella

And you did that through a lot of the workshops. How did they come about? I really enjoyed the scenes of the workshops in the film — how did you decide which ones to include?

 

Alina

That actually look a long time. We ran the workshops for a year and a half in the community. At first we had three workshops per week. We then narrowed it down to one per week, but it was still a lot. I was shooting every single time, because I wanted to establish it as part of the practice of what we were doing, in that workshop space, so that people would be comfortable and familiar with it, and it would just be part of what happened — as opposed to just suddenly filming something and then giving it a different meaning. So I had so much footage of the workshop. There were really amazing scenes of the workshop that were hard to let go of, but I had to let go, because that’s what editing is, it’s letting go. So it became just very much focused on Teri and Tiahna, and also on particular points of dramaturgy in the film, how that links to what happens before and after, so this is how I chose those moments.

 

Ella

I saw that you shot the film yourself. What made you choose to be your own cinematographer? Some scenes are very powerful, like the shot of Teri and Tiahna in front of the Skid Row sign, and when they were having an argument and the camera stayed focused on the puppy too.

 

Alina

Teri has seen a lot of films, she was trying to make a movie! I’ve shot my own films before, it was actually very difficult to imagine to get a cinematographer in the area, I really couldn’t imagine how that could have worked. Plus a lot of the things I shot outside of the workshops was completely unpredictable. Teri and Tiahna’s lives are so chaotic and so in the moment that stuff happens that we wouldn’t know 30 minutes ago that it would be happening and she’d just call me and be like, “ok can you come now” But I’m available, a cinematographer certainly wouldn’t be available at that point. It really was the only way to make the film. And the puppy, I feel like it’s the perspective of children, that’s what I thought of. That’s what kids experience in that scenario.

 

Ella

In terms of working with Teri and Tiahna, how much creative involvement did they have with the film? You follow them for quite a long time, from the conception down to the editing, did they sway the way the film ended up being made?

 

Alina

More indirectly than directly, more in the shooting than in the editing. Teri wanted to come into the editing studio, and that’s a bad idea with actors, and that’s definitely a bad idea with documentary actors. So that wasn’t possible, I had to make it clear to myself that I had to make some decisions and I had to stand by those decisions. But what I did do is have feedback screenings with the whole workshop crew, which I feel like the other women would be able to be much more objective than the main protagonists. So the final result, Teri really loved and appreciated. It was hard for her with the fight scene, because for the longest time she was just like, “are you going to put it in there? Okay, but maybe like not the whole thing?” but Tiahna would always say, “no, no, you’ve got to put the whole thing in there, it stays” – because she won the fight!

Ella

You crowdfunded the film with an Indiegogo campaign. How was that process for you?

 

Alina

We didn’t crowdfund the whole thing. We had funding from France primarily, some from Germany, interestingly we were not able to get any funding from the US, so had we not had those European connections we probably would have had to crowdfund the whole thing – which would have been terrible! Because it’s not really a sexy topic, people don’t necessarily want to have a film about homelessness. So crowdfunding was a lot of work, there were really good parts to it because it gave us a chance to reach out for the first time and really see people’s reactions, and get that audience connection going. And it also allowed us figure out how we can communicate around the film. There was a really fun fundraising party that we did that was really great in downtown, where I feel like we were able to bridge a bit of the more gentrified downtown people with some of the Skid Row people. It was cool to come together in a community spirit… but I hate crowdfunding. And now people want their t-shirts, and they have to get their t-shirts, it’s hard to do everything at once…

 

Ella

Do you think having a bigger budget or different budget would have changed what you wanted to do with the film?

 

Alina

I would have edited longer. I would have spent more time on the sound and the colour correction — so it’s mainly post. That’s the most expensive part anyway, where I wish we had more.

 

 

Ella

Why did you choose to premiere the film in Berlin? How has the feedback been and how do you find it as a festival?

 

Alina

I really love Berlin. This is the festival where I had a lot of my formative cinemagoing experience through the years, in my filmmaking beginnings. So in that sense it’s special for me to premiere the film here. It’s been really great so far, audiences are engaged, screenings are sold out.

Ella

What was the biggest thing that you learnt while making this film?

 

Alina

I feel like I learnt so much. Skid Row was really something that changed my perspective on life from the beginning – it’s now been 12 years that I’ve stuck around the area to some extent. This last one really taught me about trauma; what it is, how it literally stays in the body. Everything about trauma… I know a lot about it now!

 

Ella

What would you want audiences to learn, feel or remember after watching Game Girls?

 

Alina

I think it’s really important to just be able to show lives and show people who maybe lead different lives to what a lot of the average western cinemagoers are used to – but without placing a judgement value on it. Without having to label it in a very specific way. For me it was very important to make it relatable, to make it inclusive, to make it feel like a story that anyone can relate to. That’s why it’s a love story, everybody can relate to that. I want Game Girls audiences to really see people as individuals and the complexity of their lives, and who they are as humans. To see that it’s ‘we’, and not ‘them and us’. I hope that viewers see that when they see it.

 

Game Girls premiered at the 2018 Berlinale in the Panorama section. After sell-out shows and impassioned Q&As, the film is being distributed by Doc and Film International and will next be screened at Thessaloniki International Film Festival. You can find out more about the film by following on Twitter and Facebook.

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