New Documentary Explores the World of Telephone Hotlines

By Hans Pedersen - Nov. 6, 2014

Tony Shaff, Hotline's director and writer.

Are telephone hotlines relevant anymore? The documentary Hotline reveals that the answer is a resounding yes.

A friendly voice on the phone is a greater asset to social service groups than Internet chats, according to Tony Shaff (right), the film’s director and writer, adding that he believes phone numbers that provide anonymous help are an essential and undervalued resource that needs to be preserved.

Shaff explores the parallels among several types of phone lines and the underlying reasons people call them in this fascinating documentary that’s essentially a compilation of interviews with folks who staff a variety of phone numbers, including a teen hotline and the national LGBT line.

The idea for this moody movie about what makes people dial them came to him after college when his car broke down.

“I was in need of some quick money,” the director explained during a recent phone interview with Echo. “I looked in the back of the LA Weekly, and I actually worked for Ms. Cleo’s Psychic Hotline.”

Years later in New York he worked for a suicide hotline.

“I noticed the calls I was getting at the suicide hotline were really similar to what I was getting at the psychic hotline,” he recalled.

Shaff believes there’s a pervasive loneliness in this age where everyone is interconnected online and the result is many of these telephone numbers are racking up a record number of calls from folks wanting to talk to strangers.

But there’s another reason the GLBT National Hotline in San Francisco is overrun with calls.

“There are a lot of regional (LGBT) hotlines around the country and now two-thirds of those shut down due to funding issues,” the director said, explaining the record number of calls are flooding that national phone line.

“There are so many other hotlines out there, like the GLBT hotline, that don’t have the resources they need to take all the calls,” he said.

“I don’t know if people realize, in this day and age, the value of a hotline,” he lamented. “I do hope the movie sheds a little light on that these places need help and support.”

Filmed over the course of two years, the director says they encountered an array of other fascinating subjects, too.

For every interview he landed — including Ms. Cleo and a phone sex operator who uses her real photo — there’s another he didn’t include, like the Butterball Turkey hotline (which denied him access) and those devoted to UFO sightings or graffiti prevention.

Additionally, the director said the discoveries he made while creating this documentary have convinced him that people aren’t getting the opportunity to connect with others in the social sphere.

“People are very isolated and they’re feeling lonely and they feel there’s no one else they can turn to,” he said. “Reaching out to a hotline, which is anonymous and a lot of times confidential, allows you to express your innermost feelings and talk to a stranger about it.”

The privacy and anonymity of these hotlines is often their biggest asset, he added.

“It seems like through these hotlines it’s an opportunity to be free and speak whatever it is you’re feeling and not feel like you’re going to be judged,” he said.

While places like the LGBT or teen hotlines use the Internet as a tool to establish contact, Shaff said that a telephone conversation remains the preferred mode of communication. And because texting is ripe for misunderstanding, he added, the tone of voice over the phone can speak volumes.

“Whether it’s coming out for the first time or having some serious depression or anxiety you need to talk about, I think the voice is really powerful,” he said solemnly.

Shaff noted that the struggles and issues of the gay community are not limited to the LGBT phone numbers, they carry over to phone sex operators, suicide prevention hotlines and even veterans crisis lines.

“A lot of their callers might call them because they’re depressed about something but maybe that depression is rooted in their sexuality,” he said. “I think every hotline is seeing our community being represented.” e

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