Human Rights Film Festival: Ein Interview mit Jeremy S. Levine und Jeff Truesdell (EN)
Im Dezember fand das 3. Human Rights Film Festival statt. Viele wichtige, traurige und berührende Filme wurden gezeigt. Einer davon war «For Ahkeem», eine Dokumentation über die 17-Jährige Schülerin Daje, die in einem eher schwierigen Viertel in St. Louis aufwächst. Wir haben uns mit den Filmemachern Jeremy S. Levine and Jeff Truesdell über den Film und ihre Erfahrungen unterhalten.
Auf der Rückseite der Mappe von Schülerin Daje stehen verschiedene Namen ihrer Freunde und “R.I.P.” dahinter. Alles schwarze Jugendliche, die von weissen Polizisten erschossen wurden. Die beiden Regisseure begleiteten die junge Frau über zwei Jahre lang und daraus entstand eine schnörkellose, berührende aber auch schockierende Geschichte. Das Vertrauen zwischen dem Team und den Protagonisten wird deutlich spürbar und auch wenn die Geschichte einige traurige Momente beinhaltet, wird gezeigt, dass das Leben eben doch nicht einfach so schwarz-weiss ist.
Ich hatte das Vergnügen am Festival mit dem Regisseur Jeremy Levine und dem Produzent Jeff Truesdell ein bisschen über den Film und ihre Erfahrungen zu plaudern.
Im Rahmen vom “Dokfilm am Sonntag” zeigt das Xenix Kino den Film «For Ahkeem» am 18.2. und 25.2. jeweils um 12 Uhr. Mehr Infos gibts hier.
Das folgende Interview wurde auf Englisch geführt.
Zum Interview (EN):
I was surprised to see such intimate scenes, especially with Daje and Antonio. Everything was real, right? No reenacted scenes?
Jeremy: Yeah, this is very much her life and I think first and foremost that that intimacy is kind of a testament to her and Antonio, and just how open and vulnerable and generous they were in sharing their lifes. And I think it’s also something that we worked towards as a team for years. We spent a lot of time filming, we have two or three hundred hours of footage, but we spent way more time not filming and just hanging out together doing laundry or homework together and going to MacDonalds more times than I wish. There was way more time together kind of building up a relationship and closeness that I think comes through in the film.
Yeah, definitely. When I watched the documentary and I saw these images, it felt like “this can’t be all real”, you know? I felt how I started to build a relationship with the people in the film. It was a really amazing experience watching it. And you mentioned your friendship between you and Daje. How did she react when she first saw the film and when was the last time you saw her?
Jeremy: Jeff was just with her a few days ago in Iowa City, which he can talk about. I saw her a few weeks ago in St. Louis. We played in the St. Louis film festival there and it was kind of an amazing home coming where we had the whole team coming out together from L.A. and New York. The judge was there and some of her teachers and she was up on stage with Ahkeem running around on stage. It was a pretty remarkable experience and time to reminisce about all that we’ve been through together and to kind of celebrate her next steps. It was a really heart-warming moment.
But I mean the first time we showed the full film to Daje was right before it was finished and we sat down in Jeff’s living room and this was definitely one of the more nerve-wracking screening experiences. I mean she had been involved in the process of making the film, but this was the first time it was all put together and we felt like this is the film. This is so much her story that we just wanted to do right by her so much. We wanted this experience to feel good for her, to feel like it’s true to her. And at the end of it she said something like: “This is me. You guys got it”. And it was such an affirming moment that we had captured kind of the essence of this period of her life.
At what point in her life did you meet Daje? And how did her pregnancy impact the script?
Jeremy: We met her in the fall of 2013. And we were filming for some months before we knew she was pregnant. We take a pretty narrative approach to our film making so it’s important to us to be thinking about Daje’s life as a story. There was constantly this process of imagining the script of this film. And then something happens, like she tells us that she thinks she’s pregnant and suddenly the entire script changes. And the same thing when Ferguson happened and when she almost didn’t graduate. So, the process was this constant writing and rewriting based on somebody’s actual life.
Was the title “For Ahkeem” her idea or how did you decide on it?
Jeremy: That’s a good question! We as a team debated the title a lot. Titles are really hard and we all had different things that we liked. My partner at the time came up with the title if I’m remembering it correctly and I think eventually the whole team came around to this idea that, you know, Daje’s narrating this, some of it directly to her son, and that it captures kind of the intimacy and the personal nature of the film in a really strong way. And I think it’s about what Daje does for Ahkeem and also about what all our hopes are for what life could and should be for Akheem and for so many kids going forward.
As we saw in the film, taking Antonio as an example, it was really difficult for him to be on two different probations and to stay out of trouble. I feel like your film shows one story but at the same time a general state, how it is right now. Black people in the U.S. have a much bigger chance of getting convicted than white people. In your opinion, what do you think needs to be explicitly changed in the U.S. for things to get better?
Jeremy: Well, I do think that it was important for us to really let this be Daje’s story. And that we’re not beating people over the head with a message, that we’re not throwing statistics and figures and having experts psychoanalyze what all of this means. But to really let this play out, feel emotionally what it’s like to live Daje’s life. And that was crucial to us from the beginning. To the harder question: it can be really overwhelming to think about all of the things that need to change in the United States, especially right now. And I think in some ways that you can kind of feel like it’s too much and you want to give up. A lot of talk in the activist community is about finding that one passion of yours, that one issue that you can really bite off. And not saying: “Ok, I’m going to go and change everything”, because there are so many problems right now. One of the things that I’m passionate about and one of the things that impacts Daje’s life on a day to day basis is this idea of school-to-prison pipeline, where vast amount of kids, especially black and brown kids are suspended and expelled, and put on a path towards incarceration and this is the result of zero tolerance policy. Often administrators and judges don’t have a choice anymore about suspending kids, it kind of mandates really, really harsh responses to what should just be reprimanding kids for being kids. Kids make mistakes, and one place we could focus is about reforming these zero tolerance policies and making more sane policies that keep kids in school.
When Ferguson happened, you were in St. Louis and there’s one scene where you’re in Daje’s house, watching it on the news. How was that for you and the team?
Jeremy: When Michael Brown was shot and when the protests started in Ferguson, we were already in St. Louis because it was the beginning of Daje’s senior year of high school. We went there to film her beginning her senior year of high school and all of a sudden this huge national event is occurring down the road. You could feel the weight of the moment and of history in the making. We knew we wanted to cover this and we had to keep reminding ourselves that we’re telling Daje’s story and how Daje experiences the situation. And so she was in the computer lab at school watching the protests so that’s what we captured. For her it’s not surprising that another black teenager was shot by the police. It’s surprising that this time people were paying attention. Like, the media was coming, people were protesting, that suddenly the world seems to care. We were there with her getting the news and then calling up her cousin who was shot twenty times by the police who was in college. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an extraordinary experience that Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer. It was extraordinary that people took to the streets and demanded things to change. That’s what was exceptional about it.
(At this point Jeff Truesdell, the executive producer who was in a conversation with some people from the audience joins in our conversation)
Jeff, was this your first project as a producer? And how was this experience for you?
Jeff: It is my first time working on a film as a producer, yes. As a journalist who wrote an initial magazine article about the school, I knew once the article was published, that I wanted to tell the story again. I essentially wanted a do-over. And I wanted to take myself out of the story and allow audiences to hear and feel the emotion of the individuals and let their stories take precedence over my words. So that’s why I was so grateful to partner with Jeremy and Landon and with Nicholas Weissman. Because they brought incredible artistry and passion to the subject that I was already immersed in as a local resident. When Mike Brown was shot we were on the streets in Ferguson immediately. He was shot on a Saturday and on Monday was the first day of senior class for Daje. Our film crew was already there, and we were filming from the get-go. And at the same time while working on the film I was also reporting on Ferguson for my national magazine people magazine. And what the film aspired to do was to let Mike Brown’s death and the incidents in Ferguson play out in the class rooms, in the living rooms and in the lives of those kids rather than taking the viewer into the streets of Ferguson. But Ferguson is a story that is not unique at all to St. Louis. The Black Lives Matter movement already was in existence when Michael Brown was shot. But Michael Brown and the protest that followed drew incredible, valuable and needed attention to the passion of the movement that just then began to amplify the message and the attention given to similar shootings of young blacks by police officers all across the country. That’s a really long-winded answer. I’m not even sure I had a period in there (laughs). So, to your question how this changed me, what has changed me is the screening of the film and the interactions with the audiences. And the reminder of the passion that we as film makers brought to this story and the affirmation of the passion. We knew we had a good story to tell, we knew that Jeremy and Landon believed with all their heart that it was time to shine a spotlight on the inequalities and injustices affecting large numbers of African-American youth. We’re establishing a sense of empathy and understanding and compassion while telling a very urgent and – sadly – timeless story.
Are you going to do more film projects? What are your plans for the future?
Jeff: I would love to, it’s been a wonderful experience, but I’ve also been incredibly blessed and I’m not sure I will ever again have an experience as wonderful as this one so I’m a little fearful of diving into another one. But I very much enjoy my work as a journalist, I very much enjoy non-fiction story telling and I’ve learned a great deal from the film making partners about how documentary film making is done. And I’d hate for those experiences to be wasted on just one movie (laughs).
How about you Jeremy? Obviously, this experience hasn’t ended yet, it’s still going on. But maybe you’re already thinking about something for the future?
Jeremy: Yeah, it’s been a wild ride on this film and Jeff was incredibly gracious and trusting us to tell the story that he felt so passionate about (pausing).
Jeff: So, what’s next?
It’s always a really blunt question I find, right? But I’m also curious.
Jeremy: Yeah, and it’s hard. It’s kind of like what I imagine it must feel like to have a child. And then somebody is like: “Where’s the next baby?”. And you’re like “Hold on!”, still finding our bearings with the first one here. But I mean, after taking a little break and recharging… I have some ideas for another documentary that would explore race from a different perspective. I’m also really interested in exploring perhaps more narrative fiction work or some hybrid in between but I guess all of this is still in a very early stage.