A Dream Deferred: Short Doc ‘Paycheck to Paycheck’ Comes to New York City, With a Big Surprise

By  · Published on March 14th, 2014

There’s a scene about halfway through Shari Cookson and Nick Doob’s documentary short Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert that the subject in question receives news that she has passed a long-feared college entrance exam and can now enroll in a local institution. For Gilbert, a single mother of three who works long stretches at a care facility for the elderly as a certified nurse’s assistant (hard work, and all for the paltry sum of $9.49 an hour), the possibility that she can now attend and complete college is both a tremendous blessing and the result of lots of hard work. Minutes later, however, Gilbert is informed that her financial aid – an obvious necessity in her situation – has been denied, and her joy turns to confusion, pain, and fear.

Gilbert, who continually approaches the numerous setbacks of her life on the brink of poverty with a matter-of-fact spirit that is nothing short of admirable, breaks down on screen. It is, without question, very hard to watch. It’s certainly one of the reasons why, when producer Maria Shriver and event co-host Gloria Steinem took the stage at the HBO’s own theater in New York City on Thursday night at a special event to honor the film, primed to discuss Gilbert (also on-stage alongside them) and Cookson and Noob’s revealing documentary on her, that the audience was already moved and audibly sniffly.

The announcement that came next was greeted with more than a few tears.

Produced as part of Shriver’s “The Shriver Report,” a multi-platform project that is focused on improving the lives of women (you can read much more about that on its official website), Cookson and Noob’s documentary spent a year with Gilbert as she and her children – Brooklyn, Lydia, and Trent – attempted to keep their heads above water and rise above the poverty line. Gilbert’s story is not a unique one, and Paycheck to Paycheck seeks to both shed light on her individual story and the greater problem of women and children teetering on the brink of poverty.

As part of “The Shriver Report,” filmmakers Cookson and Noob sought a subject that could help enlighten audiences about a number of topics that make up a large part of the poverty problem in America today, and Gilbert, who is a hard worker who spends all of her effort trying to better her family’s life, is a perfect focus for their project. During the film’s post-screening Q&A, a member of the audience declared that he’d like Representative Paul Ryan, who recently commented that “a lot of poor people are born lazy” (a comment that Ryan is now furiously trying to back-peddle on) to see the film. His comment was greeted with cheers, and pushed Shriver to explain a bit more why Gilbert and her family were picked for the project: “everybody in this story is trying.”

Gilbert is undoubtedly a hard worker with an interest in education – the most important piece of advice she doled out on Thursday night was to “finish college first” – and a film like Paycheck to Paycheck easily and quickly refutes narrow-minded ideas that people like Ryan feel comfortable saying out loud (even if they do take them back later). Poor people are not lazy. No problem as pervasive and engrained as poverty can be explained away by short adjectives. It’s far more complicated than any of that, and Paycheck to Paycheck serves as a compelling conversational jumpstart to get more and more people talking – and doing something – about America’s problem with poverty.

As Gilbert knows, education is one way to combat financial problems, which made it all the more satisfying and fulfilling when, before Shriver, Steinem, and Gilbert buckled down to speak about the film, it was announced that Gilbert had been offered – in the last hour, no less – a full scholarship to Chattanooga State Community College. Gilbert cried, the audience cried, everyone cried – not for the past, but for the future.

Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert will premiere on HBO on Monday, March 17 at 9PM. The film will also be available for free streaming next week, which you can learn about on its official site.