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Alexandra Pelosi's New HBO Documentary Isn't the Anti-Tech Movie You Think It Is (Q&A)

"San Francisco has a history of welcoming people, and the irony is now that it’s the tech bros with money, the natives are not so welcoming."

HBO

“Mark Zuckerberg is on the cover of Vanity Fair right now. Something tells me he’s winn-iiing! Documentary filmmakers are always losing.”

Although Alexandra Pelosi, director of the new HBO documentary “San Francisco 2.0,” said this with a knowing laugh, it’s clear she’s deadly serious.

The movie premieres Monday at 9 pm, and if you’re already intimately familiar with socioeconomic upheaval happening in the Bay Area, you can afford to miss this movie. But if you have friends who aren’t as in the know, or you’re looking for a clear-eyed, sober recap of what’s been going on, you could do a lot worse than watching Pelosi’s 40-minute documentary.

“San Francisco 2.0” is in many ways a spiritual sequel to “Journeys With George,” Pelosi’s best-known movie, a handheld-camera-filmed documentary from 2002 about George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign for president. “Journeys” was about a goofy Texan who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and ended up getting elected president, and the press corps that played buddy-buddy with him the whole way through. The footage predates 9/11 and the Iraq War, and watching it all these years later, it feels like you’re waiting for some other shoe to drop.

“San Francisco 2.0” checks in more than a dozen years later on a radically different part of the country, portraying an American cultural and economic hub teetering on the brink of all-out class war.

That same ominous feeling from “Journeys” — that what you’re witnessing is somehow a sign of more to come — pervades “San Francisco 2.0.”

Pelosi’s new movie is much more political than her last one. Her one-woman documentary style revolves around shoving a camera in people’s faces (most often men in power) and getting them to squirm on-screen. In “San Francisco,” she does this to investor Ron Conway, California Governor Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and many others. She also spends time with people on the margins in San Francisco — a jobless executive assistant living in a tiny SRO apartment, Hispanic residents of the Mission neighborhood and others.

Pelosi’s tale is also deeply personal; she grew up in San Francisco, but she has lived in New York for a long time. A key theme of the documentary is that the San Francisco to which she’s returning is very different from the one she left.

 A scene of transition depicted in “San Francisco 2.0”
A scene of transition depicted in “San Francisco 2.0”
Screengrab/HBO

The story she weaves together isn’t all that original, but that’s kind of the point. In an interview with Re/code, Pelosi explained why she thinks what happens in San Francisco is really what’s happening across the globe. She also talks about her family ties (her mother is the Democratic congresswoman and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi), the backlash from local media and much more.

I talked with Pelosi over the phone about a week ago. Here’s our interview, condensed and edited for clarity and length:

Re/code: Do you think the tech industry has been a net positive for the city of San Francisco?

Alexandra Pelosi: The answer is really complicated. Because you can’t say it’s been bad for the city, because it’s done a lot of good. You have to acknowledge all the tax revenue has been good for the city. You have to acknowledge that a city has to reinvent itself in order to stay alive. You have to give the tech companies props for revitalizing San Francisco.

But, dot dot dot, you have to acknowledge the challenges they bring. What I was trying to focus on in the movie was, how are the elected leaders going to handle this? What are they going to do? There are lots of problems. What are we going to do about it?

The question is, are the leaders up for it? That’s what I’m trying to ask. I was not trying to say, “Ooh, tech companies bad; ooh, middle-class all good.” It’s not so simple. The question is, where do we go from here.

I know what you want, you want a simple answer, you want me to say, “Oh, they’re destroying the city.”

Screengrab/HBO

No, I don’t you want to say that. I think a simple answer would be disingenuous. I’m interested in what you say as someone who came back, and the years of knowledge and intimacy you had prior to the movie. What’s different about San Francisco, post-tech reinvention?

Well, none of my friends live there anymore. I’m a documentary filmmaker; documentary filmmakers can’t live in San Francisco 2.0. Musicians, filmmakers, artists, that’s where my heart is. If you have to ask me, I think I’d say artists and documentary filmmakers should be able to live in the ciy that their families have lived in for generations. But that might just sound like whining.

The overall makeup of the city looks so different. I said to [investor and self-appointed representative of tech in San Francisco] Ron Conway, “I barely recognize my hometown anymore.” He said, “That’s progress!”

I just think that the tech companies need to realize that they have a PR problem. Because regardless of what we think of them, the question is how do the natives look at them, and they look at them as … what did we with the Pilgrims?

Colonize?

Yes, exactly. The natives that have lived in San Francisco think tech companies are colonizing San Francisco.

San Francisco has a history of welcoming people, and the irony is now that it’s the tech bros with money, the natives are not so welcoming. Everybody’s like, “Well, we meant everybody but tech companies with money.”

Yeah, but when Arlo Guthrie came to town, it didn’t increase rents in the city by 250 percent. Do you think this recent wave, and the displacement effect it’s having — what can these new tech companies do to mitigate their effect?

Well, old tech companies know that you have to work in the community so everyone doesn’t hate you. I mean, I work at Time Warner, it’s not exactly a commune. But they do so much outreach for the community. I don’t think the new tech companies have learned that yet.

If the new tech companies learn how to become more zen with the community and not treat Dolores Park like it’s their playground, will that be enough?

I don’t have any qualifications as a sociologist. I mean, I don’t know how you’re going to avoid class warfare. It may have to pass a generation. It may be something that happens with time. Maybe the tech bubble will burst like it did last time.

One thing your movie did well is that it didn’t necessarily try to answer these harder questions, but it gestured at stuff that isn’t impossible to find out.

Okay, sure, take the Airbnb hearing [with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors]. There are two sides, they’re having an argument, they’re going to City Hall. I think it’s interesting that it’s all being decided in San Francisco.

When I was in Amsterdam (my husband is Dutch; we spent the summer in Amsterdam), all people complained about in Amsterdam is how Airbnb has destroyed the map of Amsterdam. But my mother-in-law is a historian, and she says the reason Amsterdam is dying — because it really is just tourists now looking for a quickie, is because back in the 1880s — they didn’t put money into the city like Paris did, to build boulevards and so on. The reason San Francisco has the class warfare it does today, it’s because the city didn’t deal with the affordable housing issue decades ago.

What makes San Francisco so interesting is not that it’s destroying millions of lives or something, but that it’s a prelude to what could be happening to cities across the country.

I’m gonna steal that word from you! Prelude! The purpose of this film was to present the prelude. Because, I live in Manhattan, a mayor got elected here on the “the tale of two cities.” We all know about “the tale of two cities.”

San Francisco is the prelude. As [UC Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor] Robert Reich talks about, the world where you want to live is inaccessible to the middle class. The middle class can’t afford to live in any of the great cities in the world anymore. That’s what it’s becoming.

Is there more stuff that you see in San Francisco that’s happening in global cities?

Well, I talked to a lot of historians. And I had a lot of white men talking in the movie, and we had to limit how long people would sit for white men talking. This “hashtag white people problem” — you can’t just have too many white men talking about the problem. Because really they’re the ones pushing people out of the Mission.

There’s a lot of historical context I would have loved to put in the show, except, like, who are the historians really? A bunch of old white men.

And there’s a lot of … Can you tell how careful I’m being? I’m trying to be so careful.

I don’t think you’ve said anything that’ll piss off anyone too egregiously.

I know! I really don’t want to be the enemy of tech. I sleep with my iPhone on top of my heart at night. It’s like an appendage. I have to be so careful, because I’ve seen some of the headlines that people wrote about my San Francisco show, at the screening we had. “She bites the hand that feeds San Francisco!” It’s all so simplified.

Everything in the media gets reduced to “Pelosi fighting tech companies!” It’s such a nice headline, it’s so deliciously simple. No matter what I say, I feel like it’ll just be taken out of context for a headline like, “Pelosi takes on tech companies” or “Pelosi is an enemy of tech.” I don’t know why that’s the narrative that they want.

When you think of the new stereotype of San Francisco, what are the words that come to your mind?

 Alexandra Pelosi
Alexandra Pelosi
HBO

Can I just say one thing? I did Bill Maher [“Real Time” show] recently, and I wasn’t trying to focus on SF, because I didn’t really think the whole country cared about SF; I was trying to make it about America and the rest of the world. How it’s a microcosm, that we can look to San Francisco as a — your word — prelude. We can look to SF and see what’s happening to the great cities of the world.

What’s interesting, I do Bill Maher a lot. Over that weekend, I logged in to my email, this one that I never check. I opened my email, and the last posting on my website doesn’t even mention my last movie. I logged in, and I had 3,000 emails — it must be spam. But they were all in the 24 hours since I was on Bill Maher.

What was remarkable is that everyone was writing to say that this was happening in their community: “You should come to do something about our community.” It wasn’t like Chicago, it was little places! I was blown away by how it’s not just the big cities, but it’s little communities across the country. Everybody’s feeling it. You’re asking about SF, but I’m thinking about how this is happening everywhere. That’s why I don’t think it behooves us to get into a street fight about San Francisco.*

For the HBO viewer in Omaha, Nebraska, who’s settling down into his couch and watching a documentary, what is the movie? Is it “This is the story of my hometown?”

I’m stealing your word — it’s a prelude! It’s a word I’m gonna steal from you and keep using for the rest of the week. It’s a taste of what is going on. Robert Reich steals the show when he says, “Cities are becoming gated communities!”

I’ll let the great, wise men say it for me.

Thanks for talking with me.

Thanks for your interest. Please write something smart, don’t write something stupid, please don’t get me evicted from San Francisco.

Trailer

* After the interview, Pelosi forwarded many of these emails to me. They are exactly what she describes.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.