Do you show the world your true face? “Consciously, or more often subconsciously, women in poverty don’t realize that they are putting on a masking of normalcy to hide their true needs,” explains Tammy Thompson, producer of the new documentary film, “We Wear the Mask: The Hidden Face of Women in Poverty.” The film digs deeply into the psychology of poverty to shine a spotlight on an often underestimated segment of society.
Thompson, along with filmmaker Michael Savisky, has woven together a trio of stories about Pittsburgh women.
It begins with Dominique Waters, a young mother maneuvering around the city on public transit, taking her daughter to school, and herself to work at a fast food restaurant Downtown. She earns $10 an hour as a manager, often working 12-hour shifts. She’d rather be a recreation coordinator at Urban Impact, where she works part-time, but no full-time positions have opened up. She’s always on the lookout for a better job.
Veniecia Robinson works as chief financial officer at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church. She moved out of a housing project on her own as a young mother at 18, and put herself through college. Fiercely independent, she complains in the film that old friends from the housing project assume her success came easily, instead of acknowledging that she worked hard to improve her life.
Third, there’s Louann Ross, who’s now in her 50s and married to a man who gave her financial stability after years in poverty, and the freedom to earn her Ph.D. She now lives comfortably in Squirrel Hill, but still keeps her cupboards full to bursting. Scarred by years of scarcity, the memory of extreme poverty stays with her, and affects her actions.
These women are not looking for sympathy, but want to share this slice of their reality.
Thompson is the founder of “The Poverty Chronicles,” a YouTube vlog that covers a myriad of issues from financial planning to understanding the emotional realities of parents in poverty. She’s also the founder of Thompson Real Estate Consulting, a financial literacy and home-buying education service, and is the coordinator for the East Liberty Circles Group, a project of East Liberty Development, Inc. that works to move families out of poverty.
Her work is dedicated to removing the stigma of poverty, particularly for women. She is outspoken in her belief that “social service programs that just give help without offering options are planning for failure.” She knows this from her own experience of growing up poor, and dedicating herself to teaching financial literacy along with life counseling.
Savitsy, founder of Make Roots Marketing, has always been interested in film production, and studied at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He came to the project after filming a promotional video for the East Liberty Circles. That experience inspired Thompson and Savisky to do something bigger.
“We had a clear idea from the beginning of what the major themes would be,” he said of his collaboration. Originally the hourlong film was going to be a 10-minute video, but it became apparent early on that the stories would be too truncated,” Savisky explained. “I thought the best way was to get into their daily patterns and family interactions that [ultimately] uncovered something that you don’t usually see.
“We had been adamant about not inserting ourselves into the stories, or narrating it,” Savisky says.
To create the film, he worked around their schedules and mostly shot the footage alone. Over time, the women and their families became more comfortable with the process. “We’d spend time together on the bus, in their homes, and one day I drove with Veniecia to her hair appointment,” Savisky says. “The women made my job easy because they were willing to put their lives out on film, and didn’t shy away from personal topics.” In the end, he shot 22 hours of footage, which was narrowed down to the final 60 minutes.
After its initial screenings, the creators will strategize about how to submit “We Wear the Mask” to film festivals and hope to find a broader audience, and develop it. They also want to utilize the film locally as part of community discussions and social service educational programs. “It has a broad enough appeal,” Savisky says.
There is a sold-out community test screening on October 26 at 5:30 p.m. the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium at the Hill House but people can sign up at wewearthemaskfilm.com to get information on future screenings.