DOC NYC 2014: Tony Shaff’s Hotline

There’s something potentially erotic about nocturnal, and body-less, interaction with strangers even if the hotline isn’t overtly sexual in nature.

DOC NYC 2014: Hotline
Photo: DOC NYC

Tony Shaff’s Hotline humanizes the professionals who answer hotline calls by revealing their faces and allowing them to be as vulnerable as the people who call them, for everything from phone sex and homework tutoring to psychic divination and 911 emergencies. But the film has a hard time developing a cogent structure given its plethora of stories. One particularly captivating talking head worthy of her own feature-length treatment is Miss Cleo, the notorious spokesperson for a psychic pay-per-call service. While some of the other professionals profiled by Shaff reveal compelling anecdotes about previous calls and the reasons for their pursuit of this line of work, they also spew a lot of truisms about loneliness and selflessness. Miss Cleo’s trajectory of swift televisual fame, set against the underpaid reality of most dispatchers (24 cents a minute or less), and her downfall when the state of Florida sues her, bears a gravitas that only highlights the superficial squeaky-clean honesty of many of the film’s other subjects.

At times it’s as though Shaff runs out of images to show, apart from electric cables and stock-looking shots of people on their cellphones, making one yearn for a documentary on hotlines that would actually bypass visual imagery altogether, as if in a Derek Jarman-esque disappearing act akin to Blue. Although Hotline does feature one or two melancholy callers, we’re mostly treated to a barrage of professionals easily convincing us of how important their craft is. The fact that some of them seem just as emotionally unstable as their potential callers suggests a debate on the exact methods and ethics of the hotline as a therapeutic enterprise, which the film doesn’t explore.

There’s something potentially erotic about nocturnal, and body-less, interaction with strangers even if the hotline isn’t overtly sexual in nature. Confessions become more fathomable, repressed desires return to the surface, even for the hotline professionals, who sometimes agree to meet callers in person. The film timidly evokes this sexual element inherent to anonymity-based technologies and enhanced by the wee hours; hotlines don’t abide by business hours or normative sleeping patterns. Anything can happen at nighttime, one of the hotline workers tells us, from phone-sex theatrics to the dismantling of suicide attempts. While we may presume phone hotlines to be as obsolete as payphones in the face of the Internet, the documentary argues that these lines may be even more relevant in a time when our engagement with the world doesn’t take the shape of two-way acts of communication, but monologues addressed to others who only exist as vague figures of self-serving fantasy and imagination.

DOC NYC runs from November 13—20.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Diego Semerene

Diego Semerene is an assistant professor of queer and transgender media at the University of Amsterdam.

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