Part food movie, part human interest story, part political doc, Laura Waters Hinson and Kasey Kirby’s Dog Days symbolizes a lot about our infatuation with food. With the 2008 economic crash acting as a backdrop, Dog Days focuses its lens on Coite, a recently laid off average white guy who sets out to overhaul the problematic street vending monopoly in his home of Washington D.C. Along the way, Coite meets Siyone, a single mom and former refugee from Eritrea, who has been selling hot dogs curbside in our nation’s capital for upwards of 20 years. Together, the pair form a bond over business, personal struggles, and an admirable desire to defend the greater good. The story might not be glamorous, or even optimistic, but the picture it paints speaks volumes about our relationships with food, friends, family, and the oft ephemeral notion of the American Dream.
Below, Hinson discusses her subjects, her mission, and how crowdfunding ultimately got Dog Days off the ground.
How did you guys first come to meet Coite?
Coite was a personal friend who, honestly, had never crossed my mind as a main character for a documentary. However, one night Coite and his wife, Allison, came over for dinner and he somewhat sheepishly confessed that he’d gotten fired from his job and wasn’t sure what to do next. This was in the midst of the economic collapse of 2009, when millions of people were losing their jobs.
Coite’s first impulse, though, wasn’t to clamor for the first job he could find. He began explaining his dream of starting a small business that would help traditional, largely immigrant, hot dog vendors on the streets of D.C. to make their own failing businesses more competitive against the rising popularity of food trucks. He had a real heart for these hot dog vendors, many of which were single mothers from African countries. He wanted to see them succeed and felt there was a real market for reviving the traditional hot dog cart.
At what point in your relationship did you make the decision to start filming?
During our dinner, Coite also explained the myriad, insane obstacles to street carts thriving in D.C., from hostile government regulations to an underground monopoly controlling what the cart owners were purchasing. We felt there was a real story in this microcosm of American entrepreneurship playing out under the noses of so many D.C. politicians preaching job creation and economic revival. It had all the elements of a good film: high stakes, true ‘underdog’ characters, and an untold story. We spent the next four years, off and on, filming our characters to see how their dreams would turn out.
From the viewer’s perspective, it seems immediately clear that all parties are fighting an uphill battle. How aware were you that your story might not have a happy ending?
The film we set out to produce was definitely not the film we ended up making. In the beginning, we hoped our main character, Coite, would be triumphant, transforming the street food scene in favor of the traditional hot dog vendors in D.C. Two years into filming, we realized that just wasn’t going to happen. After licking our wounds a bit in the editing room, we realized that the process of an individual coming to terms with disappointment and choosing to press on despite overwhelming challenges was emerging as the crux of the film. And so, in many ways, the movie is about much more than we ever anticipated. It doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending, and we think it’s much more authentic and relatable as a result.
I imagine you guys came face-to-face with lots of people just like Siyone. What made her stand out? And were there other vendors that had a big personal impact as the story unfolded?
Siyone is in many ways the hero of our story: a single mother of four, a former refugee from Eritrea who has sold hot dogs out of a cart for more than 20 years. She really spoke for dozens of other vendors who had walked a similar path in search of the “American Dream.” Siyone stood out to us because, story-wise, she was Coite’s first customer and ultimately, his most faithful friend as he sought to build his business. Siyone’s humility and indefatigable work ethic pierced our hearts every time we spent time with her, a reality that is really elucidated in an emotional scene with her daughter in the kitchen. We met so many vendors — all with amazing stories — but Siyone was our favorite because she trusted us enough to give us her story and to open up her life to us. Most of the vendors were skeptical of being filmed, but not Siyone. She wanted the world to know her story.
Have you kept in contact with Coite and Siyone? Has the story developed since you guys wrapped production?
We keep in regular contact with both our main characters. We are bonded for life!
Can you tell me a bit about your experience with Kickstarter? Would you recommend it to other young filmmakers?
Kickstarter was a wonderful experience. We were really blessed to reach our goal, and even a bit beyond that. More than the money, though, we built a base of more than 500 supporters who have stuck with us throughout the process of making the film. Building that base is critical, but running a Kickstarter campaign is no joke — you have to promote and monitor it on an hourly basis, every single day of your campaign. Many filmmakers fail to reach their goal because they think the platform will magically work in their favor. In fact, it takes tons of time networking with friends on social media to reach your goal, but in the end, it’s worth it!
Finally, what do you hope people take away from Dog Days?
We edited Dog Days in such a way as to sweep viewers into the personal narrative of our characters, rather than hitting them with lots of facts and issues. Our film is, what we like to call, a work of ‘narrative non-fiction.’ In that sense, we want the film to inspire and to entertain people — and make them laugh! Ultimately, our hope is for Dog Days to reach and encourage viewers from all walks of life who are struggling to pursue their passion, or simply make ends meet. With millions of people still unemployed, and many small business owners facing unnecessary government regulations, we think Dog Days will speak for a large swath of people wondering if the American Dream is worth pursuing.