Hannah Dweck is a young film writer, director, and producer. Her first feature film, Guest House, observes three women’s journey to fight their addiction through a reentry program in Alexandria, Virginia. We spoke with Dweck, who outlined her process and the impact of addiction on women. Interview conducted by Grace Wagner.
First, can you explain what your film is about and what you think the larger significance of the story is?
Guest House tells the story of three women, Maddison, Selena and Grace, who are going through a reentry program after being released from incarceration. They’re simultaneously trying to manage their addiction and reclaim their lives by building up a network of support, making amends with people they feel like they’ve wronged, and, overall, putting together a life that they feel will support them going forward. I think that the bigger picture is about stigma and trying to show a genuine snapshot of what it takes to actually battle a heroin addiction successfully. It requires not only a huge amount of personal resolve, but respect, accountability and non-judgement from the people around you. If you put those things together people can usually accomplish great things.
Do you think the experience the women in the film have is unique?
No, I think each woman has her own unique parts of her story, but the point of Guest House was to try and show a variety of stories that share big similarities. While their origin stories are all different: Grace was addicted because of prescription medications, Maddison grew up watching drug addiction, Selena feels that she grew up without a lot of support to lead her down the right path. They all end up in the same place looking for the support and encouragement that they need to be able to choose a different life.
However, what is unique is the program itself. Friends of Guest House is able to offer high quality, hands on support that is not easily attainable for a non-profit. So, the opportunity that these women are receiving is unique, but their stories are unfortunately extremely common, just largely unseen.
What information about recidivism and addiction, particularly among females, do you think is essential to understanding the experience of the women?
A statistic that generally surprises people is that women are being incarcerated at twice the rate of men for nonviolent crimes, and that largely has to do with addiction or crimes surrounding addiction. I think it’s a shocking statistic that jolts people and makes them realize that there’s a lot about drug epidemics they don’t know. Additionally, most women who are incarcerated for drug addiction either have children or are pregnant while they are incarcerated. When you add the cost of child support to the large amounts of fines weighing on the heads of these women while they aren’t able to make a living wage either because they are incarcerated or can’t get a job once released, it’s easy to see how this system is heavily stacked against recovery.
In the past, you have made films and shorts that have been fictional, for example your first comedy short The Business Meeting. What made you want to pivot to making your own documentaries?
This project felt like fate in a way. I was introduced to my co-director, Yael Luttwak, by a good friend of mine, and when we met, she mentioned this idea she had to film the women at Friends of Guest House. Her very dear friend named Melissa Goldman Davidson, who volunteers her time teaching yoga there, would tell Yael about these incredible women and how her class there became one of her favorite classes to teach. Yael invited me to take Melissa’s yoga class with her, and it was a combination of meeting the right people at the right time and having stories of addiction take on a sense of urgency in our community that brought this all together.
I’m at the beginning of my career, and in a lot of ways still getting my footing and seeing what feels right for me to create. It was a gift to be a part of the intimate process of documentary filmmaking, one that you just can’t know until you experience it yourself, this early on in my career
I read that you first visited Guest House when you took a yoga class there. Was that the first time this subject matter caught your attention? What was your experience with this subject matter before choosing to make the film?
This was my first hands-on experience with the opioid crisis. I opened up the Pandora’s Box of women’s issues when I was in college, talking about sexism and microaggressions and all the things you learn about in an educational setting. Also, I’m familiar with nonprofits that support women in the D.C. area because I've been a part of my family’s foundation for many years, so I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of hands on support for women in crisis....This was definitely a different angle, taking a deep dive into one issue and understanding the complexities of how drug addiction affects women differently from men. When we were filming we became members of the house, offering us a perspective that was impossible to imagine before we began.
What made you choose Friends of Guest House over other programs?
Yael’s access through Melissa allowed us to begin the conversation with Kari Galloway, the executive director of the program. One of the big questions you’re faced with when you’re going to make a documentary is access to the subject you’re covering. Friends of Guest House was excited by the idea that we would film the women and their process. It was obvious when we walked in there that this was a really unique place. They are in a beautiful Victorian house in Alexandria. You would never expect that this would be a reentry program.
Also, proximity made a big difference. We could easily get to this house everyday, and Yael and I are both native to this area so we could see this through our local lens and understand the context surrounding the program a bit more.
Did you find it challenging to get subjects to agree to expose these traditionally stigmatized parts of their lives?
No, in a really kind of beautiful way. All of these women were so shocked that we even cared about their stories and that we cared about this issue. They were excited to tell us about who they are and show us their experience to spread the word for other people going through this process. It felt like a community of women coming together to try and tell a story to change the world, which was an incredible thing to be a part of....It was a huge honor to have these women open up their stories to us....Maddison, Selena, and Grace were really generous with telling their story. They gravitated towards the whole documentary process. I think it was interesting for them to be on the other side of the camera and seeing what it's really like. Of course, just with anything, there are going to be some ups and downs, and, overall, I think we tried to maintain open and honest communication and it went a really long way.
What struck you about these characters? Why did you choose to follow their stories?
It was partially that we wanted to have different origin stories around the same topic. It was a nice mix of stories to give a whole snapshot of the different ways people become addicted. But also it was about them wanting to keep being filmed everyday. Part of the observational filming process is you have to have people who are willing to be filmed so much, more than you can even imagine. You’re seeing the footage that we’ve chosen to show, but think of all the hours we didn’t put in the movie....We had to film people who wanted to be filmed because you can’t force anyone to genuinely tell their story.
Was there any point where the stories felt too personal? Was there information you were hesitant about sharing or maybe information you chose not to share because of its personal nature?
There were some things – because we got to know these women so well – we felt like they wouldn’t want to have on camera, moments where they would forget that they were being recorded. We wanted to make sure that when we were sitting with them and showing them the movie that they would be really proud of it and didn’t feel like we were exploiting them by taking a really personal piece of information and putting it on the screen for all the world to see....Of course people are flawed and they’re going to say certain things in moments of anger or sadness and we didn’t want to undercut any sort of credibility. We wanted to represent them truthfully....We also wanted them to be proud of the final product and be able to show their friends and family. Now, they have jobs and coworkers and lives. They were letting us film some of the most vulnerable parts of it and we don’t want it to affect the now strong foundations that they’ve worked so hard to build.
Was it difficult for you to withhold judgement or frustrations?
We got very close with our subjects, and there were times that they would let us know if they were going to break a rule of the house. We obviously didn’t want to be a part of these moments for many reasons, namely that it was just as important for us to maintain trust with the house as it was with the women. There was never a question about judgement, especially because non-judgement is a pillar of the program, but just like anyone struggling with mental health issues there are going to be ups and downs and sometimes that would feel frustrating or concerning. As a documentary filmmaker it’s important to maintain as much objectivity as possible, but we are also human beings and frustration and natural reactions were something we would closely watch within ourselves. Having a partner in making this film felt particularly important in those moments. Having someone to talk through it all with and help reconcile the difficult times.
What were the new discoveries/realizations you made in the process of making this film?
I stopped assuming that I knew anything about anyone. The importance of getting to know someone and approaching someone non-judgmentally started to be on the forefront of my mind all the time. The more we talk to people and understand how they got to where they are, the more barriers are broken down.
Was it difficult to not become emotionally attached to these women?
I cannot deny that I was emotionally attached to these women. I think it’s impossible to prevent becoming emotionally attached, but you can control how you act upon it. It really helped having Yael and Andy (our DP) as partners in this. After a really difficult day of filming, we could talk to each other about it....Between the three of us, we could be enough support for one another, and maintain more distance from the women.
What was the most difficult part about making Guest House?
I think the most difficult part was maintaining constant trust and communication with Maddison, Selena and Grace, and staying in touch with what Yael and I set out to accomplish, which was to make an observational movie that shows the realities and faces of addiction and who are the faces of the opioid crisis and what they are actually dealing with. We were also making sure that we weren’t exploiting these really vulnerable stories that they were letting us into. We were trying to stay really honest and open with our subjects and respect their extremely emotional journey that was going on.
Because recidivism is a lifelong journey, when did you feel like the film was done?
We had the luxury of knowing that we wanted to capture the six months that these women go through Guest House. We had a prescribed time limit, which felt like a really clean way to capture something so big. It is a lifelong process and relapse is part of recovery and you’re not expecting perfection....We wanted to capture the stakes of these six months and what it really takes to get yourself to a place where you feel like you can trust yourself again. That felt like a clean and manageable way to talk about one aspect of this process.
What was your response when hearing that Selena had relapsed? How do you feel this changed the story?
The first thing that Yael and I both felt was heartbreak and worry. We wanted to make sure that she was okay. We wanted to hear how she was feeling about her own relapse. We didn’t want her to feel like all she had done and all we had experienced with her was erased because it wasn't. Not everyone is going to go through a reentry program and hit it 100% out of the park. It doesn’t mean that they haven’t succeeded. When we were going to catch up with her for the epilogue of the movie was when we found out and that felt really hard. We just really wanted her to be okay. We thought we should get this movie to her so she can see how amazing she is and what a light she is, and she doesn’t have to just give up on herself and she shouldn’t because look how strong she is! And then there was another part of us that thought to just let her be. She’ll come to us....I think that she’s doing okay now and she’s still working, so we were really happy to hear that. Yael and I learned that relapse is a part of recovery and that reality hit us for the first time and that was really powerful.
Have you checked back in with the women recently? How are they?
We had a great local screening of the movie. Maddison and Grace were both there to do a Q&A after the screening, and it was so exciting to be able to share a stage with them and the director [of Guest House] Kari. I will give them updates and it feels like a really nice way to stay connected with them.
Who is your ideal audience for this film? Who would you like to see this film and why?
I want to say everyone. But I want women in a similar circumstance to Maddison, Grace and Selena, women who are incarcerated, to see this movie and feel empowered by it. I want loved ones and relatives of people who are going through addiction recovery to see that they aren’t alone, to get some comfort in seeing stories of others struggling with addiction and feel like whoever they love that is going through this difficult time is also not alone.
I say everyone because I think the most important way to try and fix any problem is through understanding it and educating yourself about it, especially when there’s so much stigma around drug use....If you can learn more about addiction and the realities of recovery, you can be more compassionate. If you see someone on the street who you think is addicted to something that you will show them a little more compassion and you don’t need to be afraid of them or you don’t need to run away from them. These are just struggling individuals.
Do you see yourself making more documentaries in the future?
I do. Right now, I’m focusing more on fiction. I’m focusing a lot on writing right now, especially during quarantine. It feels like that is all there is to do. Writing and reading and researching. I definitely feel like the documentary bug will come back. There’s just so many stories to tell and so many interesting people who can share the stories of their lives. I feel like, similarly with Guest House, it will be very obvious when something is right for me to document....It feels so different from fiction because you’re taking something that’s already real, alive and existing and telling the story versus fiction, where you get to create it yourself. I think that I will make more documentaries, but I also don't want to force the process to happen because there’s a lot of magic that happens when timing and fate bring you together.
Would you be willing to share with us an idea of what you’re working on now?
I’m still very interested in women and how women are affected by society....I’m focusing a lot on women and how we portrayed them over time and especially identity as a young woman or even as a teenager. When you start to realize that societal pressures exist, how does that then affect who you become?
Is there anything else you would like viewers to know?
I want viewers to know that this is a really hopeful movie. Even though this is about addiction and the opioid epidemic and following people’s recovery process, this is a really accessible film to watch. It’s 75 minutes and it’s uplifting. It makes you want to be a part of a community and see how powerful a community can be. I think when most people think about addiction and recovery, it feels very harrowing. You have to force yourself to sit and watch it for the education piece of it. With this movie, I don’t think it has that tone at all. It’s a lot about the human experience and the way that you relate to these women feels very surprising….This is the realities of life and you don’t need to be afraid of it from one human to another.