Like a lot of African-Americans in this country of late, I have been deeply impacted by the events that led up to and that have since followed the tragic death of African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin. Martin, as it has been ubiquitously noted, was unarmed when he was shot and killed by self-appointed community watchdog, George Zimmerman. The teenager was killed 3 weeks after his 17th birthday on February 26th in Sanford, Florida.
Eager to find an engaging documentary short film for a grad school assignment, preferably, I thought, with an international human rights angle, I began browsing the site, http://snagfilms.com. I was immediately struck to find that among the site’s extensive catalog of documentary and narrative films, both short and long-form, a handful of the documentary selections included films that deal with gun violence in urban communities. Considering the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I began to switch viewing gears. Two films immediately jumped out at me since they both dealt with instances where guns were used in the killings of African-American men, both by individuals within the black community and by individuals otherwise considered to be outside of that community.
The two films were Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story and I am Sean Bell. (Sean Bell was a 23-year old African-American man who was shot 50 times by NYPD officers and killed the night before his wedding.) These 2 short documentaries, both in contrasting but compelling ways, advance their narrative and their message by focusing on the events that led to the death of a specific individual (again, in each case, the victim was an African-American male) and how the death impacted the victim’s family members and the greater community at large.
The first film, Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story, is a 22-minute documentary short directed by 19-year old, Terrence Fisher, and fellow teenage filmmaker, Daniel Howard. Both teens live in housing projects in the Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. Having seen 7 of his childhood friends lose their lives to gun violence, Fisher was motivated to make a film documenting gun violence in his community in an effort to bring about awareness and change. Ironically, a few months into the film’s production, Fisher’s close childhood friend, teenager Timothy Stansbury, is shot and killed by a New York City police officer right in front of Fisher. Fisher and his friends, although outraged by their friend’s killing and still mourning his death, set out to finish the documentary and share the story of of Stansbury’s death with those outside of their Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
Recalling Plantinga’s review of stylistic modes in the making of a documentary in his book, Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film, it is clearly apparent that the young filmmaker employs a variety of modes in the making of his documentary. Although, seemingly unintentional on Fisher’s part, the documentary shifts modes as the direction in narrative shifts from being a general story about gun violence in his neighborhood to being a personal crusade following his friend’s untimely death during the film’s production. Fisher begins his filmmaker’s journey by making a film that is primarily observational and participatory (sometimes interactive – he asks his subjects to reveal and display the guns they have hidden under their mattress and then holds a gun himself) and, finally, by the film’s end, is rather reflexive. Fisher ruminates on all that has occurred, the lessons that have been learned, and how he has been forever changed during the months of filming.
Fisher also adeptly inserts himself in a protest rally and films his friend and fellow musician/filmmaker making a tribute rap video to his fallen friend with neighborhood children acting as background extras. This all succeeds in making the story a personal odyssey for the filmmaker and, therefore, a more intimate experience for the viewer. Fisher’s use of archival news footage keeps the viewer engaged and invested in the flood of events, as they break in the criminal case against the police officer who may or may not be indicted in the shooting death of his friend. What results is a gritty and raw account of gun violence and its commonplace occurrence in the deaths of many young black men in America.
Although, not a requirement for my assignment, I was intrigued enough to watch another short documentary covering the same subject matter. I am Sean Bell is a 12-minute piece covering the death of the young African-American man, Sean Bell, who was also shot and killed by New York City police officers. On this occasion, Bell’s death occurred the night before his wedding following his bachelor party at a New York City club. This documentary was slightly different, stylistically, from Fisher’s documentary. The filmmaker, Stacey Muhammad, is a community activist and clearly more nuanced in her filmmaking than the teenage Fisher. Muhammad does not insert herself into the piece rather she interviews young black boys to get their views on the death of Sean Bell. There is a greater use of music for emotional effect than is the case with Fisher’s documentary. Additionally, Muhammad’s editing is tighter and more fluid, weaving each boy’s interview into the next boy’s. However, although more beautifully shot and edited, after a short while I began to feel as though I were being lead through an experience as oppose to being swept up in a quick tide of events, which is what I felt while watching Fisher’s short.
I did find the use of a playground as her shooting location a highly effective choice. She places her young interview subjects in front of what appears to be a mural-painted wall; the beauty of which is aesthetically at odds with the brutal subject matter. It succeeds, however, in softening the subjects you see on screen while also reasserting their youth. She also chooses to interview a few of the boys’ mothers in the playground. One mother pushes her infant son on a swing as she’s being interviewed and speaks of the threat of potential death for her son as he gets older. Another mother, a poet, recites a poem she’s written about the Bell killing. All of these elements create a documentary that is both reflexive and poetic.
Both documentaries are uniquely compelling in their own right. Both filmmakers blend documentary filmmaking modes, effectively advancing their stories and causes in highly creative and powerful ways.
Both documentaries can be found on http://snagfilms.com, or you may access them through the links provided below:
By Felami Burgess