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Families face tough choices in the shadow of the Great Recession

A gripping image in Portland from the filmmakers behind "American Winter."

When you think about poverty you might think about hunger and homelessness, but you also should think about the tough financial decisions that families in need have to cope with. A new HBO documentary, "American Winter" takes a look at the tough choices Americans face. The documentary follows the stories of eight families struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and reveals the impact of cuts to social services, the decline of the middle class, and the fracturing of the American Dream. The makers of that documentary, Joe and Harry Gantz wanted to make the documentary to provide an intimate snapshot of the state of the nation's economy as it is playing out in the lives of many American families.

 

"We saw that so many people were losing homes, losing jobs, working in jobs that didn't support a family even if they were working overtime. Then we saw that that was followed by cuts to social services across this country. With more need than at any time over the last 80 years, with all these cuts going on, we decided that we would do documentary that kind of looked at the human side of the equation. There's been films and books written about how Wall Street's affected, how banks were affected, so we wanted to look at how ordinary American families were affected across the country," says Joe.

How did the Gantz brothers find the families?

"We actually found all the families through monitoring calls at the 211 service in Portland, Ore. 211 is the number you call in most cities -- some cities it's 311 -- if you need some type of social services. We listened to hundreds of calls a day and asked some of them if they'd be willing to allow us to come out and film their attempt to get social services and get back on their feet," says Harry.

The families gave filmmakers intimate access into their lives.

"Once we worked with them, we worked by staying in the background. We don't tell them anything about what we would like them to do or not do. We just stay completely in the background and film their lives over three, four, five, six months. We were let into every aspect of their lives. There were some very difficult times going on for these families. We had to watch them decide whether they were going to pay their electricity bill or rent, whether they were going to move out of their apartment, whether they were going to lose their home altogether and have to go into a shelter," says Joe. "And then also families who didn't have enough to eat, needing to go to food banks to keep their families fed. That's difficult, very difficult, to be there so intimately in their life and watch this go on."

Joe says the stress of these families having to face tough choices -- like buying groceries or paying for rent -- day in and day out really affected him. Harry says many families in the documentary struggle with having to ask for help from the government or their own family members.

"You'll see many people discuss that in the film, where they felt they would never be in a position where they would ever ask the government for anything," says Harry. "Another gentleman is talking about asking his father to help him pay an electric bill and how that just pains him so much."

The documentary "American Winter" premieres on March 18, 2013 on HBO.

About the author

David Lazarus is an American business and consumer columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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