Helene Goupil is a French-American journalist based in San Francisco who films, produces, and directs poignant documentaries dedicated to social and local causes that are particularly close to her heart, from marginalization to social activism in the Mission District.
She recently won the United Nations Association Film Festival Grand Prize for her short documentary The Seed, which will be screened on Saturday, March 4th, 2023 at the San Francisco Main Library as part of the Night of Ideas along with her other short documentary “The Mission.”
The Seed tells the story of Guy, “San Francisco’s Flower Man” who suffered the full brunt of the effects of gentrification and suddenly found himself homeless, in a city known as a model of social justice. In partnership with Still I Rise Films, Goupil films ordinary people doing extraordinary things and fighting to preserve their dignity.
A San Franciscan by adoption for 20 years, Hélène Goupil co-published “San Francisco, The Unknown City” a guide that features the city’s unusual places.
An alum of the Graduate School of Journalism at the U.C. Berkeley, Hélène began her career in print media and collaborated with major French and American outlets (see the article on the Hippies Geeks of San Francisco published in Madame Figaro). Passionate about documentaries, she now uses this platform as a way to bring social justice issues to light.
Here’s a spotlight on this French-American journalist and her unique journey for MerciSF.
How did you come to the United States?
When I was eight, my family moved temporarily to Phoenix, Arizona. After many trips back and forth between France and the United States, we finally settled permanently in Phoenix when I was in my last year of high school. Originally from Istres, I have always felt a deep attachment to France and took my Baccalaureat exams at the Lycée Français de San Francisco in order to be able to return to France to go to university.
How has your background influenced your career?
I have always been interested in people. As a child, I liked to imagine people’s lives. In high school, I walked around with my film camera and my father’s old video camera to capture snippets of everyday life. I didn’t really know how to build a story, I was just having fun. During my undergraduate studies in Aix en Provence, a class assignment led to me realize that I wanted to get into journalism.
After a detour in Kyoto, Japan, where I taught English and wrote for “Kyoto Journal,” a local magazine, I arrived in San Francisco with my boyfriend Josh, with whom I founded an online magazine, Inside Out Travel, and then co-wrote the guidebook “San Francisco, The Unknown City”.
My taste for travel also led me to work as an assistant editor for “France Today,” the Magazine of French Travel and Culture. Meeting with the editor-in-chief Anne Sengès was decisive. She encouraged me to pursue journalism studies at U.C. Berkeley. Even if I think nothing beats learning in the real world, the education I received at journalism school helped me learn how to make videos to tell stories. During my graduate studies and after, I produced many short visual stories for the web and especially for Mission Local.
How did your passion for documentaries come about and how did you go from print media to audiovisual production?
I have always been drawn to visual storytelling, and during my studies at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, my professors, Mimi Chakarova at Still I Rise Films and Lydia Chávez at Mission Local (both of whom I’ve continued working with), gave me the opportunity to do those visual stories. Documentaries allow me to meet people, discover their lives, and go beyond stereotypes. They allow me to tell human stories by exploring the universal themes that bring us together.
How do you describe the style of your documentaries?
I make intimate short films that allow me to slip into people’s daily lives. I often film alone with a small camera that helps me disappear to the point where the subjects can forget that I’m there. I want things to feel authentic as if I wasn’t there. I capture raw images. I don’t ask people to pose or do something just for the camera. I want to show the beauty and poetry of everyday life, even in difficult times.
How does your social activism take shape?
I can’t remain insensitive to what is happening around me. My documentary, The Seed, looks at the phenomenon of marginalization and Guy’s story illustrates this phenomenon in terms of what’s happening in San Francisco but also what’s happening globally. I want to talk about people left aside in San Francisco. The region is known worldwide for its innovation and its wealth. We talk a lot about startup founders and new technologies that are born here, but much less about those pushed aside and the impact that Tech has had on the daily lives of many people.
I think my documentaries also represent a disappearing San Francisco and express a certain nostalgia for a city that has always been a welcoming place, and that has embodied openness and tolerance. When Guy arrived from Baltimore in the 80s, he felt he could finally be himself, as a gay man. Although known as a city of inclusion, San Francisco has become a city of social exclusion.
How do you choose the subjects of your documentaries and especially how did you choose to tell Guy’s story in “The Seed?”
I make documentaries about people who inspire me with their passion, their perseverance, and their humanity. I chose Guy for the human values he embodies. Guy likes to bring happiness to people with his flowers. He’s a very wise person. You can’t be touched by his story and his humanity.
The Seed has won numerous awards including the Grand Jury Prize at the United Nations Association Film Festival, how do you explain its success?
Guy’s story is very touching and very real. I had the chance to follow him for 10 years and my film retraces in a very intimate way the phases that are both the most painful and the happiest of his life. Thanks to all this time we spent together, trust was established and we became friends.
What message(s) does The Seed convey?
It shows the harsh reality that no one is immune to precariousness, but it also brings hope. Guy managed to get out of it, and finally to live from his passion. Guy imparts a lot of wisdom to us. As he says, material things don’t define who we are and we must accept who we are. His flowers and the people who come see him make him happy. It’s beautiful to live like this.
Can you tell us about your recent documentary “The Mission?” What does it have in common with “The Seed”?
“The Seed” and “The Mission” both portray people who want to reach out and help others in their own way. “The Mission” shows the incredible work done by Valerie Tulier-Laiwa, an activist from the Mission District who, at the beginning of Covid, jumped in to help establish the “Latino Taskforce,” a local crisis unit which goal was to listen and to identify and meet the needs of the most vulnerable. “The Mission,” which originally began with a series of print stories by Lydia Chávez and the team at Mission Local, is the result of a collaboration between Mission Local and Still I Rise Films.
“The Seed” and “The Mission” both show the harsh reality of life in the United States, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and the gradual disappearance of the middle class. However, I try not to fall into pitying anyone and strive to show people’s perseverance and strength. These are stories of hope.
What has been the impact of your documentaries?
At 73, Guy didn’t think his voice would still matter, he told me. Thanks to this documentary, people know him better, and he feels more supported. For Valerie, the documentary made it possible to show her work and create a model of social activism that can be replicated across the United States. The documentary captured a moment in time in the organization’s history that can live on forever.
Do you have any other projects underway or planned that you would like to share with us today?
I’m working on the profile of a woman who was addicted to drugs for 20 years and is in recovery and helping others.
I’m always looking for new stories, so don’t hesitate to contact me.
Below are links to trailers:
You can watch the Seed at https://vimeo.com/582453693
The Mission trailer at https://vimeo.com/696638305
Come hear Hélène Goupil talk about her work during the Night of Ideas on Saturday, March 4, 2023, at the SF Main Public Library.