“Hey Lori, Do You Mind If We Put a Mic on You Today?”: Steve James on City So Real
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City So Real, image courtesy Chicago Story Film, LLC

When confronted by the press about the overwhelming political corruption in Chicago, city officials often shrug their shoulders and briefly admit, "This is Chicago politics." Corruption in the city is so indigenous and unrelenting that it simply "is as it is," was and always will be. In Steve James' five-part documentaries City So Real, a lively portrait of Chicago loosely wrapped around the 2019 mayoral election and the murder trial of Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke, city residents justify a number of their problems with the same self . referential and self-determined feeling: "This is only Chicago for you." In the city's 2019 mayoral elections, young candidates put a growing need and need for radical change on the ballot. James has spent some time filming contestants like Amara Enyia, Ja & # 39; Mal Green, Neil Sales Griffin, and Lori Lightfoot despite being at the bottom of the polls. Of course, in a big surprise, Lightfoot won the runoff against Toni Preckwinkle through a landslide. Chicago's status quo did not stir under Lightfoot, but the global pandemic and the murder of George Floyd finally rocked the dogged city.

Everyone now knows the results of the election and the trial (Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to just six years in prison for the murder of Laquan McDonald). James creates no pseudo-tension around these past events and instead lets himself be guided by his lighter humanistic fascinations. As we know from his previous work, his lens knows no racial boundaries. In City So Real it is just as often on the predominantly black south and west side as it is on the predominantly white north side and the predominantly Latin American east side. The impressionistic structure of City So Real, coupled with the extended length of the documentaries (it was always limited by the standard length of the documentary in feature length), makes James Chicago read through at its most liberated and, to our amusement, undisciplined.

But over the years, the idea of ​​a white filmmaker imposing his camera on non-white communities has become more controversial. What happens when a “white camera” rolls over black, yellow and brown subjects? Are the white filmmaker's motives pure and, even then, isn't his camera prone to implicit bias? Aren't the BIPOC issues reduced to how they react to a white camera and audience? At the beginning of September 2020 – when Steve James was still shooting film for the fifth and final episode of City So Real – he took a break from the conclusion of his finale to carefully reflect on his role as a white filmmaker with creative freedom in non-white spaces. and how he accepts his approach to topics or their lack. City So Real premieres on National Geographic tonight.

Filmmakers: Little did I know you were still making footage for the final episode of City So Real.

James: When the pandemic hit everything was shut down. Lori Lightfoot won a national profile and since we hadn't sold the series yet I thought it would be great to create some kind of postscript that takes the pandemic into account. Then when George hit Floyd and the upheaval made it clear we had to do a full episode. Then I was on the street a lot more. Before that, I did internet interviews with people from my home country and only shot minimal. I'm excited for the prospects of this episode – this will certainly make the series even more relevant.

Filmmakers: I am always curious to see how and when a documentary filmmaker wants to finish his films when the story he is capturing is continuous and potential milestones are always on the horizon.

James: It was originally meant to be a stand-alone film, then that changed. If you've spoken to people I work with, they'd tell you that I have a problem with shooting too much. It was so busy that it became clear that it really wanted to be a documentary. My partners at Participant (Media) were very supportive of this. The concept was that we would at least survive the first elections and possibly the runoff elections. But when we had the first part of the election behind us, I had the feeling that there was no way we could give the audience a deep jump into the runoff. (laughs) I thought people were going to say, "Please don't do this to me."

We shot some between the first round and the runoff, but we were very strategic with that plan and thought that was the movie. Lori came out of nowhere and it turns out to be the mayor of Chicago. It ended well and I was perfectly happy with it until everything else happened. Now I'm really excited to see what it means for the city right now. The city is undoubtedly a symbol of what is going on everywhere else.

My filmmaker friend Robert Greene said I should just go ahead and just keep shooting. At some point we would have 20 episodes. If someone was willing to pay for it I would probably consider it! (laughs)

Filmmakers: How flexible is a documentation budget for such an extension?

James: As a filmmaker, I'm a real bargain. We had to take into account the greater length, but that didn't add much to the budget. We shot a lot and there was a lot to edit. I have a great associate editor in David Simpson who I've worked with a lot over the years. One of the reasons documentation has become so commonplace and widespread is because the economics of the sales documentation works so well. To give hours of content to a streamer or network, I've made long movies all my life, so that's what I was made for. (laughs) Or it activated me. However, the working documentation has some economic logic as well as the fact that it allows you to delve much deeper into a subject.

Filmmakers: And they sell more easily than a three-hour documentary.

James: Absolutely. I had gotten away with long films, but when you watch most standalone documentaries there seems to be a consensus that 90 minutes is the length that a documentary should be. It is rare to see two hours of what is now considered long. 90 minutes is the sweet spot and I think filmmakers know that and that's what buyers are looking for. It's more likely to make people think about their movie. (Buyers) consider two things, the description of a movie and how long it lasts. (laughs)

Filmmakers: Have you found your truest form in documentation format?

James: Yes. If I did Hoop Dreams today it would be a documentary. Nobody wants to show a three-hour documentary in a theater. We were very fortunate that this film was being played in the theater at a time when theaters were only showing a few documentaries in the theater. It was amazing. It wouldn't happen today. I think of City So Real basically as a five hour documentary that's broken down into episodes. It doesn't match the style of documentation that many of these crime documentaries have.

Filmmakers: The cliffhanger.

James: Yes, and withhold information. The little twist at the end of the episode to keep you watching. That's an art, but that's not what this show is, that's not what America To Me was. I've always made long films. Now I can do it longer and in a form that is more commercially viable and more valuable to the public.

Filmmakers: Unlike a feature film, each episode has a unique ending. The end of episode one: Maze Jackson concludes the WVON 1690 AM morning show with the haunting sound of 16 shots in a row, a moment to ponder the murder of Laquan McDonald by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke. The gunshot sounds seem to last forever. Another episode ends abruptly to match an abruptly ended debate among the Chicago Sun-Times mayoral candidates. They are not your usual episodic endings. How did you approach it?

James: You want to think about how to start and end each episode because people are moody. They may love the previous episode, but if the next episode doesn't grab them, they have plenty of options. (laughs) So you want to grab people at the beginning of each episode and lead them to a strong, provocative ending. Even if it's not the traditional cliffhanger, at least they are in one place where they want to keep watching. So this 16-shot scene seemed like the perfect ending to the first episode. Much has been done about the Laquan McDonald Trial in Chicago and, without question, “16 shots” became the catchphrase for the tragedy. So the way Maze Jackson, the radio host, played was haunting. In the third episode the debate takes place. The debate is so fun and controversial that it seemed like a great way to go out. We're doing something with the series that has the title at the beginning and the end, so we think about it too. What brings us back to the title of the series that is resonating?

Filmmakers: Unlike America To Me, or some of your earlier work in which you filmed people who are not used to being under the control of a movie camera, you are filming mayoral candidates for City So Real who are. These people are always "on". Was there any reason to crack this armor?

James: There were two things I knew. We didn't want to fully partner with a candidate or two and tell the story of the election by them. I did not want. That's a lot of political documentaries that follow campaigns. There has been this thing lately, like the AOC and some others, where people follow multiple candidates in completely different races. I love the idea that there were ultimately 14 people on the ballot that represented this wide range of people who thought they might be the mayor of Chicago. (laughs) On the other hand, I knew we weren't going to follow 14 candidates either. We had to make some decisions so we felt ourselves into it. Certain candidates were much more willing to allow us to film them, and some candidates were not ready to let us in at all, even though they are in the film. Toni Preckwinkle, for example, we went to events and just filmed them. We never got into her office or a car with her, but that doesn't mean she's not in the movie – and probably not in a way that she'll be crazy for either.

But there were certain candidates like Lori Lightfoot who really interested me from the start, even if no one gave her a chance to become mayor. Here was this woman who had never run for office, a gay black woman with a strong personality. I let my fascination drive that. In the same way, Neil Sales Griffin, who was literally the last one to get on, is one of the most prominent people on the show because there was something about him that fascinated me. Amara Enyia was another example.

Then there were candidates I really wanted to have access to, like (Bill) Daley, Susana (Mendoza) and Preckwinkle. But the candidates who thought they had a serious attempt to win did not let us in. Part of the calculation, I'm sure, was that if they won and there is something embarrassing about them they would regret it. And of course we wouldn't help them get elected. We weren't media. It was always interesting when we try to initiate with these candidates and they see me with the big camera and say, "Oh, who are you with?" They were very interested, but as soon as I gave them my pitch they said, "Oh yes, talk to my press people!" and it wasn't going anywhere. We've probably shot enough to make an entire film about Amara Enyia. She was one of the candidates who was most receptive. But I knew we wouldn't. For Lori, we had to overcome her press people to get the material we got. She personally liked the idea of ​​what we were doing and liked each other, but her press people saw no value in it to her. So we really had to work around her to get what we got and thank god we did because she won.

Filmmakers: Lori becomes just as prominent in the series as she did in the elections. Did this have anything to do with access or editing?

James: It's a combination. We certainly filmed all of our captains on the line. The press people would never work with us – after a first shoot with Lori they were done with us. But Lori really appreciated what the film was about. I told her we would follow the campaign, but we would also follow the process so that it would be a mosaic portrait of the city itself and the people who live here. We just showed up and went straight to her, bypassed her press people and said, "Hey Lori, do you mind if we put a microphone on you today and shoot you a little bit?" Before her press person could get in the way or intervene for her, Lori often said: "Sure!" (laughs) I would get a look from the press officer, but the boss said yes.

Both me and Zak Piper, my longtime production partner who played an important role, felt that she was coming. We didn't necessarily think she was going to win, but that Sun-Times support shocked everyone. I mean, the Tribune approved of Daley. (laughs) You would expect the Sun-Times to endorse someone like Preckwinkle, or someone who was thought to have a real chance of winning, but they bravely joined Lori. At the time they endorsed it, it was 2.8% in the polls. That was huge. That got everyone's attention. So we doubled our efforts on the track. Fortunately, it paid off.

Filmmakers: It is interesting that candidates like Daley are more likely to hear "documentary" than a news agency and feel that it should be avoided.

James: One of Daley's people, I'm not going to say who – and that's the guy who liked the idea – told me, "Bill is not really good with people." (laughs) "He's worried about how he's going to jump off." Of course I think, "Oh no, it'll be fine!" But I think, "This guy wants to be mayor and he's not good with people?" (laughs) But it didn't stop us from showing him in the film, and I think in a way it was a blessing not to have access to these bigger candidates. That didn't mean we wouldn't find a way to reveal them in the film, but it also allowed us to focus our energies on candidates that I find more interesting. Hope this isn't a movie that goes like this, "Who will win the mayoral election?" It's not that heavy, action-oriented film about choice and strategy. I've seen a lot of great documentaries that do that, but I wasn't interested in them. I was keen to use the mayoral election as the backbone for a film that was much more of a portrait of the city, and the wide range of candidates represented the diversity of the people in the city.

Filmmakers: You build your transitions through the city. You have footage from a bar or salon with news on TV and cut it onto the actual footage and from there to another location. Can you talk about how you made your way through your portrait of the city?

James: The inspiration for this film was the Chris Marker film Le Joli Mai, which I saw in graduate school thirty years ago. At the time, I probably wanted to be more of a narrative filmmaker, but that really turned my head towards documentary. It's a portrait of Paris in the mid-1960s, and it's one of those liberated films as it has a little bit of everything. It's a kitchen washing film: there are real scenes, scenes in which he only speaks to people, poetic passages that look like Cartier-Bresson photographs of Paris, that poetic voice that I better tried to try. I remember watching it and thinking a documentary could be anything. After being in Chicago for a few years, I kept thinking it would be great to try something like this in Chicago. He found some kind of perfect moment when politics came out, Algeria was very on people's minds. I always knew that if you want to (do a portrait of a city) you don't just do it randomly, you attach it to something.

When that mayoral election came and it coincided with the Laquan McDonald trial, I knew it was time to do so. Zak and I and my son Jackson, who was also very prominent on the set, really wanted Serendipity to go where we were going. We knew we had mayoral elections as our backbone, but beyond that, we wanted to let the stories literally take us where we were going. There have been many days when we went out and maybe had one thing in mind to shoot and had no idea what else we were going to shoot, and just winged it. We met people: the shoe shiner, the Uber driver, the couple who did the early voting.

If you've come across such interesting people in the past and they're not part of the story you're telling, don't make them part of the movie. (laughs) But that was a movie we could do that in. We had some of this news media shot in situations which was fine, it was in the idea, but then we thought we'd be shooting TVs all over the city so we could show the city instead of having boring news media full of frames. It's another element of the city. At the post office we went out and shot wherever we found televisions. (laughs) Then we put (composite) news media on some of the televisions. So it was a combination of the actual sound in place, but also orchestrated, which is a lie, but I feel very comfortable with it.

Filmmakers: It also leaves room for comedy. There's the Willie Wilson trailer who can't throw a shield in the ground. The squirrel runs away with a Reese & # 39; s Peanut Butter Cup.

James: Often times, people think that my job is only about serious problems, which is what I do. But most of the movies I've made are fucking funny. Even The Interrupters is funny – not only is it funny, there are funny moments too. Myself, and the people I've worked with over the years, have always had an eye for something that makes us laugh, both when shooting on the spot and when editing to drive that forward. Even though they are long movies, I want them to pull you through with a range of emotions. When you make a film like this, which is pretty random in many ways (laughs), what will pull you through the film as a viewer? Chicago is busy and deeply entertaining too. Politically, it is arguably the most entertaining city in the country. (laughs)

Filmmakers: You happen to pounce on a dog walker who invites you and the film crew into people's homes, like a circuit court judge who lives in the Gold Coast neighborhood. Did you need another permit to get in or was it a free hand after getting the dog walker to do it?

James: (laughs) That was of course the participant's first question when he saw her. "We love this scene, but oh my god, did you have permission to be in these people's houses?" Yes, the dog walker got permission. He explained what we were doing and they gave us permission, which was a great relief for the participants.

Filmmakers: You have already said that you were previously asked how you did Hoop Dreams as a white filmmaker, and that the question recently turned into a question of whether you should tell black stories as a white filmmaker. I've noticed that one of the effects of putting BIPOC people in front of a white camera is that they start talking, even in casual conversations with others, as if they were talking to or not explaining to a white audience need to be a non-white filmmaker. What you capture becomes an answer to white perspective. Of course that's not just that, but how do you go about it? Do you always try to close the gap between you and BIPOC subjects, or does this distance sometimes make sense?

James: Right, that's a complex question. Let me start off by saying that although the main characters in this film are white, we had a very diverse team. We had two Black Field producers, our third DP Kevin Shaw and our sound person Baili (Martin) who, besides Zak, did most of the sound, is Black. I was very aware that I have a diverse team in the field because it is vital to telling these stories. I feel this responsibility and need it more than ever. America To Me was very much in that mode. But I think you're right and it's not necessarily a bad thing. You have to decide if it falls into the category you describe, but I feel like as a filmmaker there are absolutely moments when I get something that doesn't work when I put the time and develop relationships on the subjects As a white person, I feel absolutely directed towards me. The scene at the Black Barbershop, shot by Kevin Shaw and Bailey. I was there but I had a black team and I think it helped make the situation work out the way it did (between a barber and a client). For me, it's an extremely important conversation these people have.

Over the years, in a way, I was unable to overcome it, but rather get to a place where there is a certain level of comfort and confidence where the subjects present themselves more authentically – just as they would in the world. That being said, I also think there are many times that what you say is true. Black motifs want to be heard. It's not so much an agenda that they want to publish. They explain to me as a white filmmaker, an outsider, something that is critically important to them, and they articulate it in a way that I really understand, and in a broader sense, frankly, most of the audience. Because most of the audience for all of these films is white – although it changes, which is great. I consider myself a filmmaker who, when I tell stories in color communities, tries to understand, capture, learn and humiliate myself – I realize I don't know. I am white and I am white in this situation. I would say that for a lot of my films, the initial audience is absolutely white because, in a sense, I'm their replacement. But what I am pleased about is that certain films that I made in these communities were also accepted by these communities. The Interrupters was, Hoop Dreams was, and America To Me was adopted by people of color, especially people focused on justice and race in education.

This is not only due to me, but also to the team on site and the time we have invested in telling these stories. We don't rush to get an opinion or to get a quick opinion. A perfect example for me is Flamo (from The Interrupters). There's a scene where Kobe takes Flamo to get a jerk chicken and it's a fun scene because he's trying to smoke weed in the car and Kobe says, "You can't!" But later in this scene, Flamo talks about wanting to change his life. He is saying something very poetically in the way that he wants to be the person telling the story, not the person someone is telling the story of, which means that he is dead and gone. The way he says it is so beautiful and poetic and I suspect it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been there. He wouldn't tell Kobe that. Kobe knows this. This is not a conversation he and Kobe have to have. But that's what he wanted to tell me. He finds a way to express this to someone he thinks they need to hear. And I think this is where being an outsider can be to your advantage, because everything is new enough to you, and if people trust you fully, you can get a lot of truth out of it.

Filmmakers: How can you convince people that you are not that news media camera or the camera that is being used against them?

James: It's interesting because sometimes people think that's us. Ameena Matthews from The Interrupters initially refused to participate in the film. Her boss called her to ask if she would let us catch her mediating and do a little interview. She said OK and after she was ready to go on bail. It took her a while to become part of the film. Among other things, I convinced her to show her three of my other films. As she watched her she kind of understood what I was doing and explained that she thought we were just typical white media people trying to do crazy shit in the neighborhood.

Even though I said the right things, I think she didn't trust me because I was white and had a camera. The large camera can also be an advantage. It was on The Interrupters and City So Real, it makes a statement that you are real. Everyone out there is shooting stuff. Everyone has their cell phone, everything that is controversial is documented. So if we show up and don't look or present ourselves like the television media does, that can turn into an asset too. At The Interrupters, we had an incident where the cops wanted to arrest the interruptor Cobe Williams and me and Zak because they thought we were doing some kind of scam. I got the camera out of the trunk of the car because we weren't filming and he said, "What's going on?" I said to him, "We are doing this documentary that will be on the front lines and if you want to catch up with us we will film it." Of course he disappeared, then one of the interrupter who was with us said: "This camera is stronger than an AK."

Filmmakers: On the other hand, white subjects feel comfortable as white filmmakers when they express their racist attitudes to you. How do you approach them?

James: One of the things that became crystal clear to me, starting with a film I made for "30 for 30" in 2009, No Crossover: The Allen Iverson Trial, was that I was going to get into racing in some sort of way In this way, I increasingly have to point the cameras at whites. It was made crystal clear to me on America To Me too when (former assistant director) Chala Holland told me that I have to film white students, I can't just focus on students of color. On City So Real we knew from the start that we wouldn't just film in color communities. We have to find our way into the white community and judge who they are. We shot the scene at the Bridgeport barber shop there and they were kind to let us in, but I had no idea that a couple of them were ex-cops. We just thought this would be a nice contrast to the Sideline barbershop.

We did that often. If we wanted to see a white neighborhood, we also went to a black neighborhood. We wanted to show the range of experiences around similar locations or events across the city. We have a great scene in a black barber shop – what's going on in a white barber shop? Just as you find out in the scene that they are ex-cops, it happened for us too. That kept it. When he tells this racist joke he takes a turn. We went to this black barber shop in episode five after they reopened the barber shop after three months of quarantine, and it was just after the riot. Look, (the white hairdressers) aren't bad people, but they have certain attitudes. The other scene that takes place in this house during the debate is one that my son Jackson shot. I shot the debate, but we got Gary McCarthy's campaign so we could go home to one of their big supporters.

After the debate ended, I received a text from Jackson – this scene also took place in Bridgeport – and he wrote to me: “Bridgeport. Bridgeport. Beeindruckend." (lacht) Ehrlich gesagt, so fühlen sich die Leute und das muss da raus. Wir haben überhaupt kein Vertrauen verraten. Es gibt einen Grund, warum wir die Zeile einfügen, in der jemand sagt: "Sie erkennen, dass Sie vor der Kamera stehen?" und der Typ (der während der Debatte mehrere rassistische Kommentare über die Bürgermeisterkandidatin Amara Enyia abgegeben hat) sagt: „Ja. Es ist mir egal. " Es ist wichtig, dass Sie wissen, dass er sehr stolz auf seinen Standpunkt hier ist. Leute wie du und ich werden sich das ansehen und an „Jesus“ denken. Aber es gibt viele Leute da draußen, die so denken. Das sehen wir jetzt.


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