CONTENTS INVENTORY | a participatory documentary co-created with neighbors
During the five weeks that I was displaced from my Santa Cruz Mountains home by wildfires this summer, I thought about stuff all the time. Sometimes in the middle of the night I would wake up in a panic, thinking about an object left behind that I could never replace: my fifth grade journal; a dish shaped like a pineapple that I bought in Portugal; a jar of homemade jam made out of pluots from our tree that I might never see again; a photo album of baby pictures made right after my son was born thirteen years ago.
When my parents left their Communist Romania home as refugees in the late 60s, they were allowed to each bring just one suitcase out of the country. Sentimental objects from the past were scarce in my immigrant childhood—I grew up listening to my mother talk about a childhood spent rummaging through her grandmother’s boxes of lace, ribbons, and buttons—fantasy boxes of abundant treasure that felt larger than life in my imagination.
When a homeowners insurance claimant experiences the total loss of a home, insurance companies often require a comprehensive contents inventory to be prepared—a spreadsheet listing every single object that was in the destroyed home: every light bulb, butter dish, ashtray, computer cable, pack of sponges and decorative ceramic rooster gets enumerated in a detailed document that is often dozens of pages long. The process of reconstructing or remembering these exhaustive lists of objects can be one of the most painful and traumatizing parts of losing a home. According to insurance advocacy nonprofit United Policyholders:
Listing all of your items takes time, particularly when you have been through a trauma. Sitting down and recalling room by room is one way to get started. Make use of all lists you can find to help you remember. Completing your inventory can be emotionally draining. Enlisting friends and family to help saves time and is a valuable source of emotional support. The better you are able to document destroyed and damaged property and the cost of replacement and repairs, the better your insurance settlement will be. In most cases, written or photographic proof of destroyed items will also have been destroyed in a fire.
I want to talk to my Santa Cruz Mountains neighbors who have experienced this time with me—specifically to neighbors who have lost a home or the contents of their home–using a camera to co-create a document of what we have gone through. Although I feel extremely lucky to have a standing home on the other side of this traumatic displacement, I spent many sleepless nights in August and September—while news about my home was unclear and changing on a daily basis—processing deep feelings of loss, and I feel a strong sense of empathy with those who have lost everything.
While making an insurance inventory is a traumatic process for many, I want to spend time filming conversations about things with neighbors in a way that is healing, that honors and respects the lives we built and the objects in our spaces that feel meaningful. I want to invite neighbors to meet with me, for about an hour (outside, at a location convenient and / or meaningful to you, and with social distancing) to talk, on camera, about objects. Is there a special object that you saved when you evacuated that you want to share? It can be a sentimental object or a practical object that you use every day. Is there something you are haunted by leaving behind that you wish you had been able to take? Something lost that you found by sifting ash? What objects have you replaced since evacuating? What is irreplaceable? What feels like “just stuff” that doesn’t really matter? Can we make a different kind of “contents inventory” together that is an emotional map of what home means to us?
This project is an experiment in sharing our feelings about home, objects, things—what we carry with us, what it means when things get destroyed or lost. What home feels like at a moment in time when the idea of home becomes precarious, threatened by natural disaster, financial crisis, or other large scale structural forces. What do we save or archive? What things matter and why? What is replaceable? What can we let go of? What do we lose when our homes burn down? When is it liberating to start all over again? What is the relationship between objects and memory? Between home and the stuff in it? Why do we have so much stuff anyway? What is like to return home after a disaster and find a place that is profoundly transformed, not the space of comfort that we left? How are we feeling? What does the future feel like after a collective trauma?
My name is Irene Lusztig. I am an award winning nonfiction filmmaker whose work has screened at film festivals around the world. I am interested in memory, the past, and every day history. I also love meeting and listening to strangers. My last film project involved talking to over 300 strangers in 32 different US states. I’ve lived in the San Lorenzo Valley for the past twelve years. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn more about or participate in this project!