Greetings again from the darkness. In this age of abundant digital communication options, do people still have actual phone conversations? According to director Tony Shaff, millions of calls are placed each year to hotlines. Chances are good your thoughts immediately went to one of two types: sex or crisis. The film shows us that while those are both popular hotlines, they only scratch the surface of what’s available … plus, they all have something in common.
Mr. Shaff is a former telephone psychic and suicide prevention hotline volunteer. Rather than overwhelm us with recordings of emotional call-ins, he introduces us to the people who work the lines. He shows us the different manners in which the hotlines are run. He also effectively proves the point that the common thread amongst all types of hotlines is the desire for human connection … the simple need to have someone listen.
Obviously there are economic differences between a city-supported crisis hotline and for-profit sex hotline, but we hear firsthand the similar descriptions these workers provide … they view themselves as providing support by means of a friendly voice or willing ear. They are there for the lonely. In fact, one of the most fascinating people we meet is “Jeff, One Lonely Guy” (that’s the way he bills himself on NYC street posts). Jeff spends up to 17 hours per day just talking to callers on the phone. His 700 unanswered voice mails prove he simply can’t keep up with demand. People just want to talk to him, and he seems to have an odd need to talk right back to them.
The most recognizable of our hotline workers is Ms. Cleo, who was the face and voice of the Psychic Friends Hotline. The network and Ms. Cleo faced a lawsuit, and she was cleared of wrong-doing. Today she continues her work, the bulk of which is still done via telephone. Beyond the hobbyist, the sex operators, and the psychics, it’s the volunteers who work in crisis who are clearly the most devoted and the most stressed. These are the calm voices who deal with suicidal callers, rape and abuse victims, and victims of bullying and LGBT harassment. Most of these are volunteers who share the most unwelcome common bond of having certain emotional calls that are just too memorable to leave behind. In fact, the most common question they get asked by their friends is “What’s the worst call you ever took?”
Mr. Shaff doesn’t offer much creativity in the presentation, but the talking heads serve the purpose of delivering the straightforward message. The anonymity of the hotlines provides comfort to many, as it’s often easier to unload one’s pain on a stranger than a friend. The main skill required, regardless of the hotline segment, is listening. Allowing a lonely person to be heard is often the solution to the problem. It’s a pretty good reminder for all of us.