Joe and Harry Gantz win the April Sidney Award for “American Winter” | Hillman Foundation

Joe and Harry Gantz win the April Sidney Award for “American Winter”

Joe and Harry Gantz won the April Sidney Award for American Winter, a documentary that follows eight Portland, Oregon-area families struggling to survive the winter of 2011/2012 in the grip of the Great Recession.

At a time when 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty nationwide and the top one percent accumulate wealth at record-breaking rates, the filmmakers sought to cast a light on the fragility of the middle class and the threadbare state of our social safety net.

The families in American Winter cope with stagnant wages, the mortgage crisis, medical bills, death and disability. They suffer from budget cuts that have frayed the social safety net in the name of austerity.

American Winter follows hardworking families who, like so many Americans, are one crisis away from poverty. A woman struggles to raise her son alone after her husband’s sudden death; another loses her job because of her daughter’s chronic illness. A couple with young children must decide whether to pay their mortgage or keep their lights and heat on in the dead of winter.

“The film is heartbreakingly wonderful. Every American needs to see it,” said Hillman Executive Director Alexandra Lescaze.

Joe and Harry Gantz are the Emmy Award-winning producer/directors of the HBO documentary series “Taxicab Confessions” and executive producers of the CBS drama “The Defenders.” Their past work includes the award-winning feature documentary “Couples Arguing” and the film “Destination: Change Our World” for Amnesty International, as well as documentary series broadcast on Showtime and The Sundance Channel, and on Channels 4 and 5 in the U.K.

Lindsay Beyerstein emailed Joe Gantz about American Winter.
  1. How did you decide to make a documentary about the Great Recession?

    We decided to make this documentary when we realized that there were more people out of work and more families struggling than at any time over the last 80 years, yet that at this time of unprecedented need, the state and federal governments decided to cut budgets and services rather than help these families get back on their feet.

  2. You’ve said this was a difficult film to make, what were some of the challenges you faced during the two-year process?

    Raising money was the most difficult challenge. We raised most of the film’s budget by making cold calls to wealthy individuals, as we were shooting the film. So I would wake up early, before shooting, and make calls, and go to bed late, after sending out a slew of emails. It was very stressful. And we are having a very difficult time raising money for our outreach campaign, which has the potential of changing people’s minds and changing policy.

  3. You used an ingenious strategy for finding the families: listening to calls to a non-profit information line for people facing financial crises. Did you invent this investigative technique?

    To make a documentary film on families who are struggling, you want to jump into your subject’s life right at their moment of crisis. I read an article in the LA Times about 211 info, and right then I made up my mind that the organization was the perfect way to chose our subjects for the film.

  4. American Winter is about families in crisis. What motivated your subjects to open their lives to your cameras?
    When you are poor and needing help to get by, you feel very much alone.  As you call social services and wait in line for some small bit of help, you feel almost invisible and quite powerless. I think that the families were happy to be working with us because we cared and we listened. And suddenly they didn’t feel so alone anymore.
     
  5. Describe the mechanics of filming a family for months at a time. It seems like you spent a lot of time filming at Tara and TJ’s house, particularly. Did you have a camera operator stationed there continuously as they went about their day-to-day lives?

    We checked in with every family every day, and sometimes a couple times a day. And then we would choose to go and film wherever the most pertinent event or emotion was happening.

  6. There is an activist component to your filmmaking. Tell us about the outreach part of American Winter.

    We are hoping to change minds and policy with American Winter. The financial undertow pulling 48 million Americans into poverty today requires a comprehensive approach to finding solutions. Framed through the personal stories of eight families, American Winter puts a face on the nation’s economic challenges, and injects empathy into the pursuit of viable solutions. This film can help break down stereotypes, making it harder to justify cuts to social programs and services, and can engage, motivate and unite individuals and organizations working toward a new paradigm of opportunity for all Americans. Targeted local and national NGO’s and a wide range of communities and other organizations across the country will be able to utilize the film to support their missions. American Winter focuses on the emotional, personal stories behind an often impersonal and policy-heavy subject, and our outreach and engagement campaign will use these firsthand perspectives to shift dialogue and perceptions about who is being impacted by rising poverty and wealth inequality, and how it is playing out in their daily lives.

    The overall objective of the American Winter outreach, engagement, and social action campaign is to humanize the debate around America’s economic challenges, underscore the need for safety net programs, and encourage support of organizations and policies that promote economic justice for families.

Joe Gantz
Harry Gantz