“Life and Filmmaking are Both a Search for Cutaways”: Jon Alpert on Life of Crime 1984-2020
For 36 years documentarian Jon Alpert followed three friends—Rob Steffey, Freddie Rodriguez, and Deliris Vasquez—through a Newark underground of drugs and poverty. We see them getting into trouble with the law, undergoing prison and rehab and reintegrating into society.
Alpert, a recipient of DOC NYC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, gained remarkable access to a closed-off world. Filming under a variety of conditions and on several formats, he gives a first-person account of our failed war on drugs. It is an unbearably sad look at lives falling apart. Alpert also captures moments of success, of uplift, of reconciliation and forgiveness. The film makes clear that we are all at fault for what happens to society’s victims.
After premiering at DOC NYC, Life of Crime 1984–2020 is streaming on HBO Max.
Alpert spoke with Filmmaker on a Zoom call.
Filmmaker: What made you embark on this project?
Jon Alpert: I had been a victim of crime: I went downstairs one day and my motorcycle was gone. Two or three other people at DCTV [Downtown Community Television, which Alpert co-founded] had their apartments broken into.
Most filmmakers, when they’re dealing with crime, they’re hanging with the cops. It’s a lot safer. If I could choose, I would probably hang with the criminals. I wanted to know who they were, why they did what they did, why their path and the path that my parents taught me to follow diverged so significantly. One of our staff members had a friend at an alternative high school in Newark who sent us Rob and Mike.
When they came to DCTV, I said, “I don’t really know any criminals. Can I follow you around?” They said, “Meet us on Main Street in Elizabeth, New Jersey, tomorrow at twelve o’clock.” The very first scene, where they go into that store and steal the sheets, was the first footage that I filmed with them back in 1984.
Filmmaker: What kind of equipment were you using?
Alpert: With the shoplifting I knew I had to have a hidden camera. I was friends with one of Panasonic’s engineers, and we stayed up all night long blowtorching this big camera into something that could fit into a briefcase with a hole drilled on the side. That was our original hidden camera. You can see over the course of the film, the quality of the hidden cameras gets better. For that scene I had a giant Betacam outside. Over the course of 36 years, the equipment evolved. The last bit of footage I shot with a little Sony Handycam that cost $800. It’s now my camera of choice.
Filmmaker: I’m curious about your relationship with them. We can hear you on the soundtrack at times. Did you advise them, try to protect them?
Alpert: There were two roles here. One is as a filmmaker, which means to try to honestly capture what’s going on and share that with the audience. The other is as a human being. Some people teach that there should be a really, really strong brick wall between those two things. I don’t think so. You can have those two roles cohabiting in a constructive fashion. I might film something that they’re doing that’s very destructive to themselves or to society. But when the camera’s down, I’m going to try to get them to get in the car with me and drive to the rehab center.
When Freddy is shooting up in the alley, that part of his life went on for around two weeks. He wanted to go to rehab at the Coney Island Hospital because he had broken probation. I was ferrying him there every day. The reality is that it’s very hard to get into these programs. He would sit in the waiting room for three or four hours. I would sit in the car outside for three or four hours. So, there was a lot of that going on in parallel with what was getting filmed.
Filmmaker: I’m amazed not only at your commitment to the project, but the criminals’ as well.
Alpert: I think there was commonality in some parts of that commitment. I have an admiration for their craftsmanship and creativity. Rob especially was a genius, a criminal genius. Freddie invented all these contraptions like a box with a trap door, so he can flip it over, load it up, turn it back and walk out of the store.
I think they appreciated the attention and the admiration. But more important, they knew that they had ruined their lives, and ruined the lives of the people being around them. They were basically in a really destructive tornado, and this documentary was an opportunity to snatch some goodness out of pretty rough, bad lives. They embraced it as a positive legacy that they would always have.
One of the reasons I made this is because it has an important role to play in our society, especially now that drugs are mowing down more and more Americans. I mean, it’s worse now than it was before, and we don’t have a solution. This is like rubbing everybody’s nose in it as hard as we can so we pay attention to it.
Filmmaker: One point your film makes is that while prison is bad, their lives are no better outside. They are trapped in a system that just does not work. All they can do is break it to their own needs.
Alpert: In New York city, the last gift from our “progressive” mayor is a new prison system that costs $9 billion. At a time when we’re disinvesting in schools, disinvesting in housing and don’t have equal job opportunities, we’re building iron bars again. So, are we driving this car in the right direction? With the “war on drugs” we’ve been trying to get somewhere for the last 50 years. We’re not getting any closer to a solution. We’re actually going in reverse as fast as we can. Why are we doing this?
Filmmaker: How much material did you film?
Alpert: 500, 600 hours, easy.
Filmmaker: Did they tip you off when something was going to happen? Did the parole officers tip you off? How did you know when to be filming them?
Alpert: A lot of this happened before cell phones and text messaging. The only way to do this was to go to Newark every day. As a filmmaker I had to be careful, because if you’re there too much you’re getting in the way. When I was with them, they could rob one or two stores a day. But, on their own, they could do four or five.
There are variables you need to really, really take advantage of in order to make a good film. One is time, and time is among the most important characters here. You could say time is the fourth main character.
Another variable is access, which was one hundred percent here. Another is passion. As a filmmaker, I have to believe that this is an important film to make. Because why in the world would I be driving to Newark every single day, standing out in snowstorms, missing Christmas to watch people do all these horrible things if, in the end, it couldn’t produce something constructive?
Filmmaker: How did you deal with dangerous situations?
Alpert: At one point Rob put a gun to my forehead to test me. I was terrified, but I think he was shocked that I didn’t seem to show any fear. I guess I did a good job hiding it.
It’s really fascinating how things that are, uh, unusual, out of what would be normal everyday experiences, can get normalized. You see this with first responders. I mean, if you don’t have any experience witnessing trauma, and all of a sudden you see somebody with their arm half severed off, you get paralyzed. But if you see it over and over again, you might feel that you have something useful to do about it.
I’ve seen people shot and killed and amputated. I’ve had people trying to do that to me. Once I dragged my daughter to Afghanistan and we had one, two, three, four near-death experiences in one day. We’re crossing over the border into Afghanistan with the windows rolled down and in come the barrels of ten machine guns. My daughter looked at me and goes, “Why didn’t anybody in the family try to stop us?”
It becomes part of what you do. There are people who eventually get crushed by the trauma and the post-traumatic stress associated with that. My day might come. Luckily it hasn’t yet.
Filmmaker: Maybe it’s your confidence that what you’re doing as a filmmaker is more important than what could happen to you.
Alpert: You have to believe that. Then you also have good luck charms. You can’t guarantee your survival. At some point—ding, ding, ding, this is your bad day, and it’s over.
On a self-analytical level that I don’t think that much about it, it’s fear of failure. That is a very, very strong back-stiffener in a field like this. I grew up producing dissatisfaction from my parents because of my lack of accomplishment. I looked in the mirror, didn’t like what I saw, didn’t like what I was doing. All of a sudden, with this camera in my hand, it’s not only something that I’m good at, but something I liked doing, and I can see that I’m doing positive work in the world. For the first time I was not a loser. I mean, I was a spectacular loser until I began filming. If you don’t want to fail at it, you have to take these risks, unless you’re a trust-fund documentarian or a newscaster or someone like that.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve been seriously injured, but my hand—every single one of these fingers goes in different directions. This thumb doesn’t work, nose broken, at least 10 broken ribs. I was a karate teacher at Stuyvesant High School, and I had to get a chest x-ray to be certified tuberculosis free, because I got tuberculosis in the Philippines embedding with the guerillas there. The doctor came out looking at the x-rays and asked me, “What did you do for a living?”
Filmmaker: We’ve been talking about fighting drug addiction and facing danger, but not about the artistry of this film. You have phenomenal shots in the midst of difficult situations. Like the train that passes overhead while Deliris shoots up in an alley, or Freddie staring at a vial of his blood after his HIV test.
Alpert: I hope they don’t all occur in the beginning of the film, a testimony to the degradation of my camera work.
On a very superficial level, life and filmmaking are both a search for cutaways. We’re trying to tell this story without any narration. The camera has to tell the story. If you have one subject, as opposed to two people in a scene, you run out of cutaways twice as fast.
A really interesting part about filmmaking is that you’re doing 20 different things at once. When the train’s going by, that’s your cutaway. But the light there and the light on Deliris are completely different. The audio from the train changes as you move your camera with the microphone sitting on top of it over to Deliris. That’s a problem. You’re looking for something closely related to what she was doing beforehand, she’s taking drugs, you don’t know where the cops are—there are 20 balls up in the air at the same time.
Filmmaker: One thing that struck me over and over in Life of Crime is how I could be any one of these people. What happened to them could very easily have happened to me.
Alpert: Every family is touched by this, whether it’s yourself or someone in your family. It’s cut a wide and deep swath through America.
There was a point after a couple of deaths where I thought, “Forget it, I’m not going to do this anymore.” I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I didn’t want to tell the same depressing story again a third time. Then I got a phone call from Deliris, who had stopped taking drugs: “I’m clean, I’ve been clean for five years, four months and six days. And I want you to come with your camera because if I can do it, I want other people to take inspiration from me.”
I thought, “This is the walk in the sunshine that we need to append to the tragedies we bore witness to. It will be inspirational and help people get the strength to be able to recover.” So, I started filming again. The ending of the film is not the ending you were supposed to see. I went to the mayor of Newark and we agreed that we were going to have a day for Deliris, a parade down Broad Street, give her the keys to the city. I think this is the only documentary this year that doesn’t have a drone shot, but we were going to have drone shots of the parade. It was going to be a beautiful cinematic ending. Until the pandemic.