Overview: San Francisco has long enjoyed a reputation as the counterculture capital of America, attracting bohemians, mavericks, progressives and activists. With the onset of the digital gold rush, young members of the tech elite are flocking to the West Coast to make their fortunes, and this new wealth is forcing San Francisco to reinvent itself. But as tech innovations lead America into the golden age of digital supremacy, is it changing the heart and soul of their adopted city? In SAN FRANCISCO 2.0, Alexandra Pelosi (whose documentaries frequent HBO) returns to her hometown to document what the tech boom has in store for this historically progressive city, talking to various industry representatives, politicians and longtime residents hoping to maintain their place and not be left behind. Directed, produced and filmed by Pelosi, this insightful film looks at the price of progress, and the challenges of holding onto a collective past.
Expectations: At first I wondered about why I should care about San Francisco and the glorified travelogue Pelosi was going to make about it. I even waited a few days after its premiere to watch it because I wasn’t going to be interested in it. It seemed to be a topic that a famed documentarian felt like making as an ode to her hometown City By the Bay. I felt that way until I read HBO’s promotional material and even glanced at headlines of reviews about it. My opinion changed and I wanted to see it all of a sudden. It seems an interesting and unique problem has arisen there.
Gut Reaction: Simply put, the tech boom that has been occurring in the city has driven people of lesser standing out of their neighborhoods. Highrises are replacing row houses; upscale and expensive bistros are replacing Mom & Pop places. As Pelosi points out a real class struggle is changing the city. Is it for the better? Is it just the price you must pay for progress? Is it crushing the diversity of culture that calls that city home? It truly makes for a unique diorama. The filmmaker has no answers just observes the facts of the matter unfold. It all of a sudden makes a viewer care about the problem. It also makes you wonder how the city will evolve.
Bonus: Here is an interview HBO had with director Alexandra Pelosi
HBO: What reactions have you gotten to the documentary so far?
ALEXANDRA PELOSI (pictured): After I did Real Time with Bill Maher, I got inundated with emails from all across the country saying, “This is exactly what is happening in my town.” Which is funny because I was talking about the big cities becoming gated communities. I heard from people in Florida and North Carolina. What I depicted in San Francisco 2.0 isn’t just happening in the big cities, though, it’s happening in little communicate all across America. People write 10 pages saying, “You should come make a movie in my community.” I was struck by the emails.
HBO: At its core, this is a film about people getting left behind — that strikes a nerve with many, for sure.
AP: I live in the same world because I do films, and this is my tenth HBO documentary, and they mandated I go digital, which I’ve never done. I have to learn how to use cards and digitize and upload. I have to adapt or die. And that’s what the film is about. I guess we all kind of want to be frozen in time in the place where we’re comfortable and happy — which is home. That’s where you feel at peace.
HBO: How did you come to this project?
AP: I live in New York, but I go home to California all the time, and I saw what was happening in my hometown of San Francisco. Because it’s this city that has this reputation for being the counter-culture capital of America, I thought it was an interesting story to tell. San Francisco is the microcosm for what’s happening all over the world. How is Airbnb changing the makeup of America and the world? How is Uber changing transportation in America and the world? All of these things are coming out of San Francisco — it’s the birthplace of all this art and culture in the past, and all this commerce now, so it’s an interesting story. It’s an interesting moment in time to be talking about San Francisco. If America were a scale, all the weight is shifting to the west coast.
HBO: An interesting point that comes up in the documentary is the dearth of older people and children in San Francisco. Did you find that to be true?
AP: There are old people in San Francisco because my parents still live there. The young tech bros don’t see old people or children. The Mission district, where they live and work, they don’t see children or old people. That statement revealed, to me, the blinders that the techies are wearing. They live in their own bubble — they use San Francisco as their playground, they’re not looking at it as their community. As they grow up, maybe they’ll fall in love and have babies, and then they’ll look at it as their community. People keep asking, “How are you going to solve this?” And the truth is that the young people just have to grow up.
HBO: Was there a feeling of simmering rage at what’s happening in the city?
AP: At the film’s premiere in San Francisco, I felt like I was walking into a civil war. On the one side, you have people who have done really well in the tech boom, and on the other side you have people who have been pushed out of San Francisco. You can’t go there without stepping in it. You have to be so careful about everything you say — you don’t want to offend anybody, just want to talk about the problem without stirring the pot. My uncle was the mayor of Baltimore, and when I talked to him about the film, he said, “These are good problems to have. Every city would die to have these problems.” Cities need to reinvent themselves in order to stay alive. The question is: Can the teachers and fire fighters and cops afford to stay in the towns where they have lived for generations? They’re getting pushed out of their communities.
HBO: Did you get a sense that the tech folks understand their part in changing San Francisco?
AP: I think this conversation has been going on long enough that they realize they have to participate in the community. It’s a public relations problem. The tech companies have a PR problem because they’re young and they don’t have a really sophisticated public relations organization. They’re getting them. We can’t bust tech companies — it’s hard and they’re trying to navigate the issues.
HBO: Anything you would like to add?
AP: This may sound cliché, but the people have to rise up, but the people have to tell their leaders where they want their societies to go. The world is looking to San Francisco for answers right now. They have a lot of power because they’re going to put this stuff on the ballot, other cities are going to look at it as precedent. The people will decide what the rules are going to be in the new world order because, right now, San Francisco is deciding what the new world economy is going to look like. That’s why we should be paying attention to San Francisco.
In Conclusion: So, what started as a piece I was not likely to be interested in proved to hold my attention afterall. Why is that? Because I am like most of us; I hate the big forces in the world crippling the little guy. Whenever big corporate America, regardless of manifestation, hurts the hard-working middle class and the already struggling lower class you get bent out of shape. SAN FRANCISCO 2.0 is the perfect illustration of that battle. The common man and apparently that city are losing the battle in the name of progress. The only dilemma about that is that progress is a good thing.
Next Week: Encore presentations are prevalent in October. They are TERROR AT THE MALL on 10.05 (one of my favorites this year), BANKSY DOES NEW YORK on 10.12 and CAPTIVATED THE TRIALS OF PAMELA SMART on 10.19 Debuting on MONDAY, OCTOBER 26 at 9:00pm is the documentary HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO which follows a group of teens and young adults living within the autism spectrum, as they prepare for their first spring-formal dance and charting the challenges and triumphs they face along the way. Look for that review at the end of the month.