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When we started filming, Pushpa was one of 45,000 nominees for the CNN Hero of the Year award. She won in 2012. The fact that we picked the one story out of 45,000… But I don’t know if she would have won if we hadn’t made the film only because we gave her such great exposure in the U.S. I was very, very happy for her. She’s very deserving.
Were you surprised by the crime in Nepal?
People are really taken advantage of, especially when they are desperately poor. A woman will carry drugs over the border because she’s given the equivalent of six or eight months of salary. She’s willing to take the risk. A lot of the women are drug mules for much bigger organizations that are moving drugs between India and China. I never felt like we were interviewing hardened criminals. In a lot of cases, it was mothers who were simply trying to hold it together.
How did making this movie change your life?
I have four kids of my own, so it was easy for me to get caught up in a story about a woman who was going out and helping kids. We had just come off of shooting our homeless doc, and making these two documentaries back to back changed everyone’s perspective. The kids making These Storied Streets saw poverty in the U.S. like they had never seen before. For our entire family, it was an awakening. We should quit complaining that the iPad isn’t charged [laughs] or that we’d rather go out to eat. It brings everything back into perspective for me and my family. And it totally validated the power of film for me. Every time I see [the movie], it’s impactful, and I’m brought to tears at several points.
How did you meet Susan Sarandon and Morgan Spurlock?
This is kind of a ridiculous story, but before I started the homeless documentary, I was an investment banker. I was in New York, and I was talking to this guy at an event. He asked if I was in the [moviemaking] business, and I told him I wasn’t but that I’d written a couple of scripts and won a few contests. I told him I wanted to do something about homelessness in the United States. He told me I should do it. I asked him if he was in the business, and he said, “Yeah, I’m a documentary filmmaker.” I asked him if he’d made anything I would have heard of, and he said, “Supersize Me.” I was like, “Of course!” I was standing there listening to Morgan Spurlock. And then Susan Sarandon walked over, and Morgan said, “Thomas is making a documentary about homelessness in the United States,” and she said, “How can I help you?” Since then, we’ve been in constant contact. They are so generous with their time.
I came home after that night and told my wife I was going to make a documentary film. I quit my job, sold my house and downsized my life to go for it. I think both Morgan and Susan thought it was pretty crazy, but they thought it was great and that they had a responsibility to make these movies successful.
So you’ve been pretty busy taking Waiting for Mamu to various film festivals.
The first festival we got into was the Traverse City Film Festival, and we won the audience choice award. We also had an event there that raised $20,000 for Pushpa. Every time we screen, we raise money. Our hope is that people are so captivated by the story that we can direct them to where they can help. It’s like a Kickstarter campaign. Pushpa was at the Traverse City Film Festival, and she’ll be at the Sedona Film Festival.
When did you start working on These Storied Streets?
We started filming in 2011. It’s been a long journey with this one. Susan has also been very involved in These Storied Streets because her son is co-director. I spoke to congress in 2012 about the issue of homelessness, and I spoke on Capitol Hill and at the Democratic National Convention. I think the conversation about homelessness is starting to be reframed.
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