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"American Winter": Documenting the downturn

A Portland protest in "American Winter."

Last winter, filmmakers and brothers Joe and Harry Gantz decided to document the lives of eight families in Portland, Ore., living outside of the middle class during this economic downturn.

The filmmakers found their families by teaming up with the nonprofit social services organization 211 in Portland, monitoring and recording calls from families in need of social services. The film, "American Winter," turned out to be a very vivid snapshot of what life was like for many formerly middle-class families. Families that, amid the deepest valley of the economic downturn, were having trouble keeping it all together.

    

Harry Gantz said that a lot of the parents featured in the documentary tried to shield their kids from seeing the family struggle.

"But of course, the children can't be shielded from the water being turned off," he said. "So it affects them in deep, emotional ways, and has long-term impact on them in terms of their education, their self-worth -- all the things that parents worry about their kids having."

"This stress is what these families deal with every day, all day, and it filters down to the kids," said Joe Gantz. "And it really makes the quality of life really diminished."

In making the film, the brothers spent a lot of intimate time with the families -- in- and outside of their homes. The filmmakers said the families let them in because it was a way of showing the rest of the world what they were going through.

"I think a lot of these families feel like the world doesn't care about them," said Harry Gantz. "It's a full-time job not only to work, but also to navigate the social service system."

"We made the film because we felt that there was this economic discussion going on at every level, but it wasn't taking into consideration what was happening with real families all across this country," said Joe Gantz. "And we felt that if people could see how families were struggling, it would be easier to kind of connect with what's really going on in this country right now."

"American Winter" airs on HBO on Monday, March 18 at 9 p.m.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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