There are countless ways to communicate in today’s society, some of which are no longer immediately recognized or appreciated as legitimate ways of interaction.
For the past two years, three individuals—Tony Shaff, Lauren Ashley Belfer, and 2003 Boyertown graduate Bryce J. Renninger—have been producing a film to highlight one these forms—hotlines.
Their film, Hotline, is a documentary about those numbers that people anonymously call for assistance and the connections that are made between strangers over the telephone.
“Hotlines, across the board, are an opportunity for people to connect with one another in a unique way through a lost form of communication. Telephones are phasing out and emotional connections are lost through text messaging.” said Shaff. He continued to state that hotlines still do exist and are vital for many people’s lives.
“People call hotlines for a number of reasons. It’s often about calling strangers to work things out in their lives and to come to terms with feelings. The hotline workers act as sounding boards,” said Renninger. “They receive hundreds of thousands of these calls in their lifetime and they have interesting things to say about the state of people today.”
These three producers have been reaching out to hotlines across the county asking operators what it’s like to have conversations day in and day out with strangers about things that can be very private and intense.
According to Renninger, hotlines are generally not openly acknowledged as a service that helps people because the topics are generally taboo or extremely personal, though there are also hotlines utilized for other situations such as the Butterball hotline for turkey crises.
“It’s not a continued relationship---but something happens. It’s a useful connection. We don’t talk about these ‘difficult-to-have’ conversations after we have them; these types of conversations often happen without others really being aware,” said Renninger, emphasizing that conversations in general have become a lost art form. “When we ask people if they’ve ever called a hotline, most people do say no, however there are millions of people that do call hotlines. And some services aren’t really thought of as hotlines, we don’t realize we’re using them, such as the information hotline.”
The idea of the film generated several years ago when Shaff’s car broke down in Los Angeles and he needed to find quick work for quick cash. He found an ad for hotlines workers which led to a job for Ms Cleo’s hotline service, a job which was “short-lived, but intense, hard and strangely awarding,” according to Shaff.
Following that experience, Shaff volunteered to work for a crisis hotline where he found that the same types of people were calling—individuals that were lonely, feeling isolated or just needed someone to connect with and talk to for whatever reason.
Through those experiences, Shaff knew he wanted to make a documentary depicting the lives of those influenced by hotlines. After reaching out to friends Renninger and Belfer, and after much thinking and talking about the concept, the project quickly kicked off.
“While doing the work on these hotlines, I wasn’t thinking it would be a great film, but now after stewing on this idea and talking with dozens of hotline callers and operators, I feel this film is taking great shape,” said Shaff. “Up until now it has been self-funded and a labor of pure passion to tell the story of hotlines.”
At this point, roughly 30 individuals have been filmed speaking about their experiences with hotline services.
The team of producers continues to seek out as many people as are willing to speak about the topic in order to present a well-rounded perspective. They’re eager to hear all of the stories that are out there—from callers and workers. More information can be found on the documentary’s website hotlinedoc.com.
“We’re here to hear. We want people to feel a part of this film,” said Renninger. “There’s never been a film like this made; we’re historians in a way,”
This independent film is also currently seeking support from backers as the initial production reaches completion and the post-production phase approaches.
All three producers are first time feature length film makers.
Director and Producer Tony Shaff is a filmmaker from Brooklyn, N.Y. who received a Student Academy Award Nomination. Seeking ways to develop work that contributes positively to society, he has worked on documentary films and is a producer on the MTV series TEEN MOM 2 and 16 & PREGNANT.
Producer Bryce J. Renninger, a Barto native and a 2003 Boyertown High School graduate, is a film journalist, film programmer and Ph.D. candidate in Media Studies. Since 2009 he has worked as a staff contributor to Indiewire, where he is the Editor of the Filmmaker Toolkit. Since developing his film programming skills as a programmer for NewFest, New York’s LGBT Film Festival, he has branched out in the film industry.
Producer Lauren Ashley Belfer is a documentary and television. After earning her BFA in Cinema Studies, she worked in nonprofits as a grassroots community organizer in New York’s Lower East Side. She earned a Masters certificate in Documentary Media Studies at The New School and has since produced numerous documentary films.
Hotline is projected to be completed by 2014.