Filmmaker Jezza Neumann on “Growing Up Poor in America”
How has the coronavirus changed what it’s like to live in poverty? That’s the question director-producer Jezza Neumann sought to answer in the documentary Growing Up Poor in America. He spoke to FRONTLINE about the day-to-day struggles of America’s working poor, and the challenges he and his crew faced while shooting the film in the middle of a health crisis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come up with the idea for this film?
Channel 4 Dispatches asked me to make a film on child poverty leading up to the election [in the UK]. That film became the human voice of the statistics during our election in December. Raney Aronson, FRONTLINE’s executive producer, thought there was an opportunity to tell the current story of child poverty in America as well.
I came out first in December of last year to do some initial development trips and I went to Detroit, Michigan, and I went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I went to Athens, Ohio. Then COVID-19 hit, and we had to make a decision about what to do, because British Airways was closing. I got messages from BA saying last flights will be the 24th of March if you don’t leave. We can’t guarantee you’ll leave the country. Everything was shutting down. President Trump put in his travel ban on Europeans and then the British followed soon after that. So, it was either get out or risk not getting out. …So, basically, at that point I had to make a decision. Do I stay and make the film or do I go home? In a way, it was a no-brainer.
You’ve worked under some precarious conditions while shooting your other films, including TB Silent Killer. How did that experience prepare you to shoot this film?
Tuberculosis is an airborne disease. So, similarly to COVID, you have to be very careful about your hygiene. You have to be wary about your exposure to those who could potentially be affected… And so, we had to find ways of doing that safely, or as safely as you can, while still maintaining a form of personal contact so that you could still do these interviews without being too much like the doctor or a surgeon staring down at them.
And then the other thing was making sure that you keep your camera equipment clean. To be honest, that was one of the bigger hurdles at the beginning. It was like, OK, we’re going to be around COVID-19 and we need to sanitize our equipment. But all the shelves are emptying out of wipes and hand sanitizer…
Luckily, about five days before everything hit the fan with COVID, my daughter had asked me to pick her up some Bath and Body Works hand sanitizer. I had a window of opportunity in my filming day to go and do that. So, I went and bought 15 hand sanitizers. And it was so fortuitous because when we then decided to stay, suddenly we needed this stuff. …It also meant that I spent the first period of this film smelling like a dancing unicorn.
Mental health issues like depression and attention deficit disorder are brought up in the film. In your work, did you see that mental health issues were more prevalent in these communities?
It was very prevalent in both the children and their parents. …The best way I could describe to someone what it’s like to live paycheck-by-paycheck in the land of poverty is to imagine that a tsunami hits the area that you live in. Your nice, middle-class area gets wiped out by a tsunami. How would you now feed your children? How would you now clothe your children? How would you find accommodations for the evening if the whole area is wiped out? What would you do now?
And that is kind of what it’s like for someone living in this world, struggling through poverty. Every day is, “What do I do next? What’s the next move? Do I pay the electric bill or do I put food on the table?”…
You also tend to find that, certainly with the families I met, they don’t complain… That also means they’re not really talking about it, which means it’s also staying inside and building in them. And kids aren’t stupid. You know, kids see this. They can tell when mum is stressed.
Some of the kids, especially the teenagers, were very concerned about the wellbeing of their parents. Did you get the sense that there was some role reversal going on?
I certainly saw that more and more the kids were feeling the need to step up and be parents themselves. I mean, it’s something that Shawn even talks about in the film. He felt he needed to be a dad for Dior. That is something he felt before COVID. But obviously with COVID, he felt even more that he needed to put his childhood to the side and become an adult for a while. And, the reality is that, at his age, he shouldn’t be worrying about feeding his baby sister…
With Kyah and Kelia, they were also feeling huge levels of responsibility. We didn’t actually get it in the film, but something that Kelia talked about, because she’s 18, she really felt the pressure of trying to get a job to support the family. And it was hard. It was genuinely difficult to get a job...
So, I’d say anxiety… that perpetuated the most within the teens. And it was either anxiety about their own future and how they’re going to do things in the immediate future, and then anxiety about their parents, and how their parents would survive.
How important are food pantries to these families?
Food pantries in general are absolutely critical to those that need them and for families like we featured in the film…
Whenever you make a film about poverty, one of the things you always look to do is to film through the summer break, because parents now have to feed their kids, who are ordinarily fed at school. That period in the calendar is really tough on families in poverty. So, obviously, what COVID did is it effectively brought on an indefinite summer, where these kids are at home all the time. So now they’ve got to be fed all the time. And sure, the schools deliver a package of food. Look at Shawn, he’s a 13-year-old boy. A small sandwich and a couple of Jell-O’s or whatever isn’t going to cut it. Anyone that’s got a teenage boy knows how much they eat. Right?
And now they’re at home, so they’re using electricity that they wouldn’t have been using. And then comes the summer and, if you need air conditioning, those costs are going up. To have the kids at home, it’s not just about food, it’s electricity, it’s heat or cooling.
It’s all these things that will increase costs. A food pantry is that one bit of respite that’s there. If you can pick yourself up a food box, that means that’s an extra 20 dollars you can use on your electric bill.
Two of the families — one biracial, the other Black — are seen participating in protests. Did you find that the Black Lives Matter movement added to the stress of what these families were dealing with? Or did it empower them?
It definitely empowered the kids. You know, we filmed with the kids going down to the demonstrations. And that was, by the way, the children’s choices. They wanted to do that.
Shawn’s mom was keen for him to see what was going on, and to know that you can stand up for yourself and your rights. She felt that was important. But equally, he realized the value in that, and wanted to go and experience it for himself. And he felt moved to do so. For Kyah, she’s grown up with a grandmother who has been very vocal in this world and has been part of the community and community activism. So, for her, it was a great moment for her to go and have a voice herself and be heard. She really felt that people were listening… And for them, this is very much about the issues surrounding poverty.
Were there any surprises that you came across, or did something you didn’t expect happen while covering this story?
The fact that we’ve been able to highlight the hidden homeless through Kyah’s story. In other words, they’ve lost their home. They have no home. They’re now living with friends or relatives. “Couch surfing” was another term that has been used in the past. But it’s very rare you get to tell that story, because how do you find them? For the hidden homeless, there are no statistics. But everybody knows that there are thousands of children living in this way. …If you dig in, you can find that there’s a huge percentage of kids who are making up the hidden homeless.
How did you find these families?
The primary route was actually going to food pantries. So, we went to food pantries in different areas and we would wait for people to come in and then we’d ask them if they would be open to talking to us… Also, as we spent time in the communities, we would be told about people… I mean, we spoke to hundreds of families to make the film because you’ve got to find families who are open.
You know, there’s a huge amount of stigma and embarrassment around poverty, right? Obviously with social media and the prevalence of how information can get out there, people are more nervous than ever about putting their lives out there. So, it takes time to meet people and you’re trying to gain trust… We’ve got to build that trust as quickly as we possibly can in order for people to be able to talk to us about the most embarrassing things in their lives, in many cases.
You’ve made about a half-dozen films about children living in poverty, and under dangerous circumstances in dangerous places. What drives you to keep trying to tell the stories of these children?
I’m a father. Interestingly, my kids seemed to have mirrored the ages of kids I’ve filmed with as I’ve gone through the years, particularly my daughter, Caitlin. You know, she’s 17 right now. So, I can see the struggles Miracle is facing in this film and the fears that Kyah might have at 14…
We listen to kids, but we often don’t really hear them. So, I found that this space that I offer to kids — making these films together, I really try to make it a collaboration so it’s not just me coming in and being a vulture in their world. I really want them to enjoy the project. It is often empowering for them, because they get a voice. I say, “Here, tell me stuff.” They’re not right, they’re not wrong. They can talk for two hours. They can talk for an hour, it’s whatever they feel like. And I really, really listen.
So, at the very least, if we’re trying to give a voice to these issues, if we’re trying to tell these children’s stories and giving them a platform for them to carve their own future, they’re now empowered to start the process. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Laikyen at 12 or Kyah at 14. This film gives them a chance to start by saying, “This is my life. Listen, because I need it to be better.” As long as we’re trying to do that, then there’s always hope.
How can people help these families directly?
Our company, True Vision Productions, set a foundation specifically to channel any funds that viewers might want to contribute to the children in the films we make. It’s set up in a way that viewers can actually choose to help specific kids. We also ask, if the kids are already supported, do you want other kids like them to be helped? You can find out more information about the Aletheia Foundation on its website.