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Inequality and Systemic Racism in St. Louis: Landon Von Soest and Jeremy Levine on For Akheem

Daje Shelton in For Akheem

The St. Louis-set For Ahkeem’s central character, Daje Shelton, is on a path to avoid a life of poverty and disappointment. Having been suspended from her local high school for a number of petty offenses, Daje’s opportunities are narrowing by the season. Enlisting in a school for troubled youth as a last resort, her future is up in the air. While the documentary is centered around Daja, African-American teenage men are always present. Daja speaks of her many male friends who have been lost to gun violence, and her boyfriend Antonio (and their eventual son, the title character Ahkeem) will have to fight extra hard to possess a prosperous future, even if their lives ultimately travel different paths. Daja speaks with Antonio on the phone, their son resting upon her chest in the St. Louis Children’s Hospital while she calls him at the Medium Security Institution of St Louis. Daja cares for her son while Antonio is confined to another unfortunate situation he promises to get out of.

As For Ahkeem opens theatrically, I spoke with directors Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine about their role filmmaking outsiders, being rigorous in preserving their subject’s point-of-view  and how they depicted a city equally filled with desperation and hope.

Filmmaker: For a nonfiction character study, I’m always interested in how the filmmaking team found its main subject — in your case, the teenaged Daje Shelton in St. Louis. What were you looking to create and how did you see the story unfolding?

Van Soest: We’d been dedicated to social issue filmmaking in general. We’re really interested at looking at inequality in schools and how that filters into the juvenile justice system. We were connected, through our producer Jeff Truesdell, to a school in St. Louis that was founded by a juvenile court judge. Via his zero-tolerance policies, the judge had the mission of keeping kids out of the justice system. He observed this trend of imprisoning kids who were children of adults he had sent to prison, and that prompted him to create this school as an alternative place to send them. We thought it was an incredible story and wanted to experience it through the students’ point-of-view, and to see if the school was a good place for them to stick with their education and be put on a better path.

Levine: Although the school was definitely the foundation of this story, we knew from the beginning that we wanted to tell an in-depth narrative story about one character.

Filmmaker: Did you test out a number of students to fulfill that role?

Van Soest: We did an extensive casting process featuring about thirty or forty students. Any of them could have provided an amazing story, but it was vital for us, being two bearded white guys from Brooklyn arriving in an exclusively black neighborhood in St. Louis, to really find an incredible partner in the process. We don’t subscribe to the observational ethos of documentary filmmaking. As much as it plays out as a verité film, we really saw it as a true partnership, knowing that we needed a partner who was going to be our guide and be actively involved in telling the story. We had actually started filming with one of Daje’s friends and then, in a scene that’s still in the film, Daje wandered into the room while we were filming these other two girls hanging out at night as they were braiding each other’s hair and she stole the show. We knew that she had incredible charisma and a real desire to tell her story, to be open and honest. We developed that relationship over the course of three years and really found that partner.

Levine: It was a really intense week as we interviewed those thirty-to-forty students. A lot of the interviews were about an hour long and you could see the potential for so many different films. As co-directors, Landon and I each had our favorites and knew that this was going to be the most important decision we would make. It was stressful. We had some disagreements and we each started following a few different characters. When Daje walked into the room in the scene with her friends, however, [we knew]. I feel like I’ve asked Daje this before, but I’m not sure she knew we were physically there when we met her. She walked into her friend’s bedroom featuring these strange white guys who had a boom pole and a camera, and then, after glancing at us for five seconds, ignored us as if we weren’t there. She was incredibly open from the very first moment.

Filmmaker: That begs the questions: as two adult men, what was it like placing yourself in the more intimate discussions amongst Daje’s female friends? That bedroom scene where one friend is getting her hair made up while conversation of their friends’ early deaths as a result of gun violence is casually discussed is incredibly calm. Daje shows off her bullet wound.

Levine: It’s ultimately all about building relationships. We got to know Daje, her family and the people in her school really well over the course of those three years, and we made a deliberate decision to keep crew sizes down. It would be Landon and I, or Landon and our DP/producer Nicholas Weissman, on set. We’d have various combinations and always tried to keep the crew as small as possible. You’re not going to entirely disappear in a tiny room, but if you’re just someone who’s hanging out, has a camera, and shares a sense of trust with your subject, those moments come out.

Van Soest: With this style of filmmaking, there’s an assumption that you’re detached/uninvolved, that the subjects forget that you’re there. I think that’s a funny idea, that someone could forget that someone who’s clearly an outsider with a camera and a microphone isn’t in the room with them. We were very involved in each of the situations and were actively having conversations [with the people we’re documenting]. There’s a balancing act between knowing when to shut up and knowing when you need to direct and prompt things.

We often talk about the scene on the couch between Daje and her mom. We were amazed at what came out of Daje’s mom, how clearly supportive and caring she was as she started to see her daughter making the mistakes that she herself had made as a young person. In reality, that was a pretty open kind of interview. We were actively involved in that conversation, prodding and pushing it along, and the end result was a really immersive, narrative experience. We wanted people to get lost in Daje’s world as much as possible, and we wanted to work with her and her family and friends to help create that atmosphere in the most honest, possible way.

Levine: It was always us asking Daje what was going on in her life and what we should film (and how we should film it). For each hour of footage, there’s ten hours of hanging out, talking, doing laundry and going to McDonald’s together.

Van Soest: We spent so much time there. We were there for about a week out of every month for about two years. Daje was very used to us, and there was so much time spent not filming that we’d get into these very in-depth conversations and she’d say, “Let me tell you about this thing that’s on my mind.”  I asked if she ever spoke with a counselor about these things or if she ever wrote stuff down. That’s when she told us about her journal and how she’d write every night. Once we found Daje’s voice through her writing, the film really opened up and provided a depth of character and perspective we wouldn’t have been able to achieve otherwise. She wrote all of the narration and we worked very closely to craft it in a way that served the film. She deserves a writing credit on the film as much as anybody else.

Filmmaker: The film opens with Daje attending a court hearing with her mother, where she is sentenced to attend the Innovative Concept Academy, the school for troubled youth. In terms of constructing a timeline, did the sentencing ultimately work as a narrative jumpstart for your film?

Levine: Well, I will say that the very beginning — Daje and her mom getting on the bus and heading to the court room — was the last thing that was edited into the film. It was so hard to find a right way to open the film. We tried so many “out there” ideas and it turned out to be the simplest version that finally made sense. While the film was ultimately going to be about Daje’s personal journey and coming-of-age story, the school provided a nice skeleton for the structure. It made sense for the story to begin with Daje entering into the school.

Van Soest: We wanted to explore, as an underlying theme, what it was like to live within this school-to-prison pipeline, to have this set of expectations thrust upon you. Kids could get in trouble at school, go into Judge Edwards’ courtroom and easily be done with school forever at that point. Daje had already be expelled, and, if she had ended up in someone else’s courtroom, she could have wound up in juvenile detention or doing community service. But because she went through Judge Edwards’ courtroom and into this education program, we saw that the answer to the problem was to keep kids in school. You’re not going to send kids to jail and reform them. The statistics are off the charts regarding the recidivism involved in juveniles who get sent to detention.

Filmmaker: The courtroom scene is riveting, not least because of the particular and exact framing on display: shot-reverse shots and medium close-ups are tightly edited to ensure not a facial expression is lost. It sounds foolish to ask how you storyboarded it, but what went into the planning of the scene with your cinematographer Nick Weissman?

Levine: Our intention was to be as intimate and close-up as possible. We very deliberately didn’t use any zoom lenses, sticking to prime lenses for the majority of the shooting. That helped us interact with our subjects in a much more natural way. It depends on different moments. When we knew we were going to film a court case, we had to have two cameras. We went to the courtroom beforehand and tried to map out how the scene would play out. When we knew we were going to film an intimate conversation between two characters, we would shoot it from the side, rack between them and go back in for some inserts. There was planning. And then there were other times where we’d go “Oh shit, something’s happening. Film it!”

Van Soest: There was a lot of attention paid to the blocking. The court case scene you bring up was the rare situation where we had two cameras and knew we couldn’t be moving around as fluidly as we could in other situations. That’s the only scene in the film where we deliberately had a shot-reverse shot from two different cameras. When we were filming other conversations however, we’re treating them like interviews. We’re trying to stimulate these conversations and get valuable information that we know may serve as plot points, trying to reveal things that we sense may be developing relationships. When Daje and Antonio are sitting on the stairs down by the arch and are having that conversation about parenthood, that was very blocked in terms of how they were seated and positioned. We’ve learned a lot about how to cover documentary scenes that we’ll very often shoot in a profile two-shot where we can see both faces and rack in-between. Then we swing around and get the inserts and reactions shot that we know we can edit into the scene.

Levine: To give credit where credit is due, our DP did an incredible job and has an amazing instinct, and our second DP Austin Paley, who lived nearby at the time, shot some of the most crucial moments in the film.

Van Soest: There’s a tremendous amount of credit due to our editor Lily Henderson as well. Even in the moments where we felt we were being the most intentional about how we were shooting things and how we were going to use them, she would find the downbeats and off-moments that rang so much more true and so much more revealing of the character.

Filmmaker: Was it also important to have the city be its own specific character then? The film incorporates establishing shots of abandoned, decrepit homes and stores, boarded-up and left as relics of a more prosperous time. The shots are deliberately fixed and still, as if we’re meant to take in the decay of it all.

Levine: That was intentional, but it was a complicated relationship. Since we came in as outsiders, it was shocking for us to see. A third of the houses are boarded-up and vacant in Antonio’s neighborhood and it looks like a bombed-out city north of this dividing line. Earlier cuts of the film had much more of that kind of footage, because to us, that’s what stood out. But since we were telling the film from Daje’s point-of-view, where this is just part of her neighborhood, we tried to show it as home, as a neighborhood that just happened to have boarded-up buildings. There’s that side of the neighborhood, but [it isn’t the only side].

Van Soest: We struggled with this. It’s so easy to point at the boarded-up houses and the houses that had trees growing up through them. There’s tremendous shock value there but, while we weren’t going for that shock, to say it’s a vibrant, happy neighborhood wouldn’t have been honest either. There’s been huge economic devastation and it’s extremely racially segregated, dating back to very deliberate redlining and intentional segregation. However, at the end of the day the film is about Daje’s perception of herself and what she believes to be possible for her own future and aspirations. We wanted to get into that mindset.

Daje got on a plane for the first time in her life to go to our screening in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival. She had only been outside of St. Louis once before when she visited family in Chicago. St. Louis is her reality. She doesn’t go to the southside of town where it’s relatively affluent. This is her home and when she steps outside this is what she sees. This is her community and it was really important to show how claustrophobic that could be. 

Levine: St. Louis, like most cities in the country, is pretty divided, and it’s even more stark there. There’s a street called Delmar Boulevard and a subsequent term called the Delmar Divide. North of the line is where you see those boarded-up buildings, where the median income is half or a quarter of what’s south of the line, where it’s ninety-eight percent black and the majority is white below it, etc. To see everything so starkly split across one even line was pretty shocking to us.

Filmmaker: The evening scenes are also, at moments in the film’s second half, lit by automobiles and buildings ravaged in flames. What was it like being in Missouri, and particularly amongst the students you were documenting, when news of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson took place?

Levine: It was a tragic moment, and from a filmmaking perspective, a difficult moment to grapple with. We had been in Missouri for a year before Mike Brown was shot, and we were back with Daje to film her first day as a high school senior. Mike Brown was shot the day before, and suddenly we weren’t the only people around with camera gear. Everyone started coming into the city with cameras and it was a monumental event.

Our field producer was one of the first people with a camera down there and we weren’t far behind. We actually filmed a lot of material in Ferguson and ended up doing a short video on it for Time Inc as well. For For Ahkeem however, we grappled in post with the question of how we tell this part of the story. It’s so close to Daje and it’s so pertinent to her personal life. We have all of this intense, important footage and a lot more of that was in earlier cuts before we had to remind ourselves of how she was experiencing these events.

It was crucial for us to be with Daje in the classroom for that first day of school. Her classmates started responding to the tragedy and recognizing that the same things had happened to their own peers. Daje has a cousin who was shot by the police twenty-five times and pulled an article up about that immediately. As outsiders, that was shocking to us, and it’s tragic that this is so commonplace. With Daje being pregnant at the time, the death of Mike Brown brought up a lot of fears regarding what it would be like raising a black boy in St. Louis and in the country at the time. That became the heart of the story we were telling

Van Soest: I think it’s impossible to talk about inequality in our country without talking about race, and although we knew that going in, it became much more of an explosive issue after Ferguson. The film had these themes about juvenile justice and we were looking at the judicial system, but the idea of direct inequality under the judicial system became so much of a bigger issue after Mike Brown was shot. This happened just a few miles up the road from where Daje lives, and it was a constant process for us of bringing the story back to Daje. In on our minds, we thought “Wouldn’t it be amazing if she was down in the protests when they read the verdict?” but that was not the reality of the situation. She was at home watching TV with her mom, which is probably true of what a lot of people were doing. She was terrified to be down there.

A lot really crystalized when we found that now famous news clip of Mike Brown’s mom screaming at a reporter, saying “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to graduate high school? How do you expect young black men to amount to anything when you’re just going to cut them down?” For Daje, that was such a poignant point to be made, as not only is she struggling to graduate, but she’s pregnant at the time, grappling with how to bring a black boy into St. Louis. That became such a huge focus for us. We had two huge curveballs in the production: one was Daje becoming pregnant and the other was what happened in Ferguson. The fact that those two curveballs found a way back to each other was such a huge turning point in our storytelling.

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