Tribeca Film Festival 2017 – For Ahkeem

I am a native of St. Louis, Missouri.  The city I grew up in you could leave your car unlocked.  You could leave your front door open.  The whole neighborhood would be our babysitter and our disciplinarian when my Mom had to work or go to school. Holidays were spent with family driving all over the city.   4th of July  was on the riverfront under the Arch eating BBQ, dancing and waiting for fireworks.

It was a simpler time and a time that sits fondly in my heart and in my memory.  In watching “For Ahkeem”, I was devastated to see a St, Louis I no longer recognize.   Apparently, the population of black children in the state of MIssouri get expelled ans suspended more than any other state in America.  Worse than that children at the age of 9, 10 and 11 years-old in the state of Missouri were black.

After a school fight lands 17-year old Daje Shelton in a court-supervised alternative high school, she’s determined to turn things around and make a better future for herself in her rough St. Louis neighborhood.   However, focusing on school is challenging,  as she loses multiple friends to gun violence, falls in love for the first time and becomes pregnant,   Ahkeem, just as Ferguson erupts a few miles down the road. Through Daje’s intimate coming-of-age story,

For Ahkeem illuminates challenges that many Black teenagers face in America today, and witnesses the strength, resilience, and determination it takes to survive.

My heart absolutely breaks, when the lunch lady gives her some encouragement to wipe her tears and keep it moving for herself and her son.  Daje seems like a bright girl, who just cant’t seem to ahead and often times gets in her own way falling into old patterns of behavior.

She’s one of the lucky ones, who have the support of her family and the school staff to break the cycle in order to do better, be better and have a better life than what she initially envisioned for herself.  When she walks across that stage made up in her gold cap and gown and glances down to see her baby boy smiling with joy, it was all I could do not to completely sob.

However, this same can not be said for her baby’s Daddy Antonio, who is caught up in the revolving door of incarceration and probation due immature, bad decisions.  As the song says that plays during the credits…

Ooh Chile…things are gonna get easier

Ooh Chile…things are gonna be brighter.

Someday we’ll get it together and we’ll get it all done…right now

Let’s hope so anyway…

Due for release sometime in 2017, here are some interview excerpts with “For Ahkeem”  directors – JEREMY S. LEVINE and  LANDON VAN SOEST.

In retrospect: do you think your presence had any impact on 17 year-old Daje’s life or her decisions, on how she reacted to the many challenges? I know, it is a bit of a hypothetical question – but I wonder how you – and she – reacted to the fact, that whatever she did: it was somehow documented, observed, filmed – with the intention of being shared, later on, with a wide audience?

JL:   Certainly our presence impacted Boonie’s life, it’s impossible not to….we weren’t just looking for a documentary “subject”—which I think is a terrible word. We were looking for a partner to make a film together. The fact that we’re white, that we’re men, and we’re not from the community made it vital for us to create this kind of meaningful collaboration.

LVS :  …We became a huge part of each other’s lives, and she was a vital partner in the process of making the film. All of the narration is drawn directly from her personal journals, letters, and off-camera conversations, and I think it’s really the heart of the film.

In August 2014, in nearby Ferguson, a young, unarmed Michael Brown was gunned down. How did the event influence your original project’s concept? What were the challenges for you – as filmmakers, who started shooting somewhere in the fringes of society –  which, suddenly – all spotlights were turned on?

LVS:   Well for Boonie, it wasn’t surprising at all that a Black teenager was shot by the police in her community. Her cousin, an unarmed college student, had been shot 25 times by the police less than a year earlier. What was surprising to her was the amount of attention the Michael Brown shooting was getting from the news media and activists across the country.   After Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis and many others, there was a growing tension that reached a breaking point in Ferguson and gave rise to the movement we’re seeing today.   It was clear to us pretty early on that we were witnessing history in the making and we couldn’t ignore it.

JL:   Clearly this was a pivotal moment for our country, but it was also a monumental event for Boonie—and the film.   For Boonie, who was pregnant at the time, the implications of the situation carried a lot of extra weight. She was forced to contend with the reality of raising a Black boy in St. Louis today against the current political landscape of America.  What are your hopes for the film’s release ?   After all:   FOR AKHEEM is a coming-of-age film.  Therefore,  it might be interesting to do “outreach-programs” to younger audiences, who are known not to be the most avid cinema-goers. Do you have any  “special plans”?

JL:   During the Obama years, it was possible for some Americans—mostly white Americans—to ignore or deny the persistence of racism.  But the election of Trump changed that. There isn’t necessarily more racism in the US since the election, it’s just more overt now, more out in the open, and coming even from the highest office. We’ve never fully dealt with the legacy of slavery, we’ve never made proper amends, and so here we are still, dealing with its ripples. We hope our film speaks to this moment. Certainly, there is a huge lack of empathy and understanding in the United States. But most of that discussion in our country has been about the need for liberals to understand the rural, white working class. While that may be useful, it seems to me that it’s even more vital that people understand the perspective of a girl like Boonie.

LVS:   I’m sure everyone will experience the film in a different way. For a lot of people this might be a unique opportunity to spend time with a girl like Boonie, and hopefully forge a connection with someone they’d never get to know otherwise. Others might see a lot of themselves and their own experiences in Boonie, even if they’re not used to seeing it on screen. I hope the film has a special resonance for young people and we’re looking for partners who can help us bring it directly to schools and juvenile detention centers.   But regardless of your background, I think there is a shared human experience that comes from overcoming obstacles and an opportunity for compassion in hearing a specific point-of-view. For me, that experience goes a long way toward opening yourself up and working toward meaningful change.

 

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