Teaching Op-Docs: Sound and Observation in Hotel 22

Elizabeth Lo’s Hotel 22 became the focus for a session about sound in documentary.

When we think of sound, we usually think of the human voice, which has dominated documentary since the developments of workable sound technologies. Just think of the abundant voiceover narration in Prelude to War and the rest of the Why We Fight series or in Pare Lorentz’s The River. The narration often not only tells us what is happening, but also what we should think about what is happening.

The other part of the human voice comes from talking heads. While people are interesting, too many talking heads frequently are not.

Music is another part of sound. Here, I think of scored music — the Philip Glass scores in Errol Morris films, the Joshua Abrams scores in Life Itself and The Interrupters, and the Virgil Thomson scores for Louisiana Story and The Plow That Broke the Plains. Music links sequences and scenes, and provides another layer of emotion.

Sound effects make up the final part of sound. Effects have the potential to bring a scene to life as much as visuals do. It is here that Hotel 22 shines.

This Op-Doc is about Line 22, a bus route in the Silicon Valley that people who are homeless ride during the night. The 90-minute trip becomes a temporary shelter for the paying riders.

Eschewing narration and formal interviews, Hotel 22 relies on sound effects and observational footage gathered over the course of a week. Sound effects come from the bus, such as the rattling windows, the changing engine gears, the depressurizing hydraulics, and the bing-bong-ing announcement signal. These sounds create a rhythm as the bus progresses through its route.

Other sounds come from people, such as singing and snoring. The snoring carries over a series of shots, mixing with the rhythms of the bus sounds. Oddly enough, it establishes the sense of comfort that the bus provides for people who are homeless riding it.

Some talking does occur. One rider argues with the bus driver to turn on the heat. Another frustrated passenger begins yelling racial comments that result in passengers taking exceptions to his remarks and confronting him on them.

As the route ends and the sun rises, people depart the bus. Birds sing in the background as they sit. Taken together, these people, birds, and bus create a soundscape that adds interest and depth to the observational footage. As a viewer, you want to ask questions, so many questions, but the camera remains patient, letting things unfold as they do in this composite.