Interview with Unzipped Writer/Director/Producer Colin Gray. Meet Gray at the Screening of His Newest Documentary Unzipped Tonight at Laemmle Theatre


Unzipped: An Autopsy of American Inequality is playing tonight through Thursday at Laemmle Theatre in Santa Monica (Tickets). Tonight’s showing features a Q and A with the writer/producer/director of the movie, Colin Gray and other members of the production team. An exclusive interview with Gray can be found below.

Unzipped is a searing exposé of the growing affordable housing crisis in America. This intimate feature documentary focuses on one of the country’s most iconic and increasingly income divided zip codes, Venice CA 90291. Once a mecca for artists, outsiders and a thriving Black community, Venice is now the frontline for America’s heated battles over affordable housing and homelessness. 

The producers of Unzipped have created an action hub for people to plug in with frontline orgs in their own community as part of their #RaisetheRoof Campaign. You can find out more about what’s going on in your zip code, here.

Damien Newton (DN): I’m here with Colin Gray. He is the writer, director and producer of Unzipped, which is playing in Laemmle Theaters right now. There’s a q&a tonight, after tonight’s show. You live in Venice, as you mentioned to me in the pre show. This is a film about homelessness and solutions to homelessness and how homelessness is impacting communities, both houses and unhoused people in the communities. Why don’t we start off with just an overview of what is it that you show in this 90 minute film?

Colin Gray (CG): Well, thank you so much for having us, first of all.

Unzipped is really about the affordable housing crisis in America. And it’s a local lens on this national issue. So homelessness is a part of the film, but really homelessness is the symptom of the affordable housing crisis. And so the idea was to find one community that had fast rising home sales prices, vanishing, affordable housing, homelessness, and we weren’t originally going to do a story about our backyard Venice. But then when we thought about it, and thought about centering a story in the lived experiences of one community and a group of families who are struggling with with this housing divide; it became obvious to us that Venice is the perfect place to set a story like this.

But it’s a very complicated divisive issue. We film for over two years and 56 days of filming. And we have the film is sort of typical and then veritae documentary film, where we follow these two families for over two years and their journey of trying to stay housed in Venice. And then the other half of the film is interviews with different stakeholders, as we are documenting various events within the community in Venice. And one of those was a very contested gentrification battle over the First Baptist Church, which was sold under somewhat questionable circumstances. And the plan was to turn it into his single family home.

And then we also document the plans from the city and Councilmember Bonin to build a homeless shelter as part of the HHH bond measure where a taxpayer said we need to address this issue. We need more housing and more shelters. And so they then came to Venice and said, This is where we plan to build the homeless shelter in Venice. And it was very divisive in the community. So we documented the very first town hall meeting all the way to when that shelter open. So we sort of interweave the journey of these two families with all these events going on in the film, but it really is a local lens on the issue that’s happening in zip codes all over America.

DN: Venice, and really the entire West Side is an interesting microcosm of all of this, because as you mentioned, you have the housing crisis, you have the gentrification, you also have a lot of good actors. There’s a Community Housing Corporation located in Venice, the Santa Monica Community Housing Corporation is like a giant compared to the city of Santa Monica, something like 8% of the residents live in Community Corporation owned affordable housing. You have a lot of different things going on there. In the pre interview, we we discussed how complicated this isn’t as an issue to try and wrap your head around or to try and cover. Is there anything that you were able to take from the things and be like, “Wow, this is the this is the way forward?” Or “These are some of the things that were tried? And these were some of the results?”

CG: Great question. We keep saying our film isn’t very prescriptive about solutions. But in the course of filming, we did come across, like you said, incredible local stakeholders who are trying to implement solutions. So whether that’s Venice Community Housing, whether it’s St. Joseph Center in Venice Family Clinic and their street medical team, whether it’s Safe Place for Youth, in every zip code, you can find these frontline services orgs, who are addressing the issue in different ways. So whether it’s the housing issue, there’s been a total disinvestment in affordable housing on a federal and a state and local level. So one part of the solution is increasing supply, we need more affordable housing units. There’s also the need for more renter protection.

There’s also the need for permanent supportive housing and other services for people who are actually homeless and making sure that there’s a path off the street for them and that they’re supported on that path. I always sort of refer to it as a yes and… Whatever the solution is: ADU’s, shared housing; whatever it may be that is right for your community. Yes. And. It’s going to take a very broad spectrum of public and in private groups coming together. And that’s part of our hope with the film is that I think the film is hopefully humanizing this very complex issue within one community, and hopefully provokes people, after the film, to want to get engaged to do more. So we actually have an affordable housing impact campaign called Raise the Roof, #RaiseTheRoof. You can go to this Impact Hub, there’s a QR code at the end of the film, you can get to it through the film’s website.

DN: We’ll link to it too!

CG: Yeah, please do. And that’s where people can find really simple ways to get more information to support local orgs. We’re also creating this interactive ZIP Code tracker where you can type in your zip code and get find other housing services orgs that are doing the good work in your own community, and you can support them and get involved with them.

DN: I’m not going to ask you to spoil the end of the movie, but you did mention that you’re following two families throughout this is. And I also know that stories when you’re doing documentaries don’t end like they do in regular movies. But is do we have a happy ending?

CG: It’s, it’s a really great question. So without giving it away. One of the stories is one of the most hopeful parts of the film. And it’s one of the families that’s really down on their luck, and were very brave and allowing us to document them in a very vulnerable time in their life. They’re actually the hopeful sort of part of the story. The other family goes the opposite direction. So I will just say that this isn’t, you know, it’s called Unzipped: an Autopsy of American Inequality. It sounds like doom and gloom. There are some really challenging things. We go into homeless encampments, we we hear from a lot of the opposition to homeless shelters and things. But then you also see the incredible people who are trying to make a difference in their communities and in these people’s lives. And there is some hope at the end. And that truly, you see Venice can be part of the solution, just like any other community if people are coming together to support the the needed changes in housing policies in our country.

DN: All right, well, I always say joke if this were the podcast that we’re coming up against our artificially created time limit. Because it’s the internet, right?

CG: <laughs> Come on, people are gonna get bored, they’re gonna click on something else.

DN: That’s right. If you wanted to leave with a sort of a closing point for people, or one last pitch to come out and see the movie tonight at or there were throughout the rest of the week at Laemmle theaters, what’s the closing argument?

CG: I think the closing argument is that we all have a lot of preconceived notions about housing and homelessness and who’s homeless and why I think this film is going to challenge and explode some of those stereotypes and myths. Come get challenged and hopefully be inspired to to get involved in this because we need everyone on board this new coalition that’s hopefully going to enshrine housing as a human right.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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