20 years for 17 Blocks

Davy Rothbart talks about the long journey for his family-focused doc

by Amber Wilkinson

Davy Rothbart on the Sanford family: 'I think it’s pretty unusual and it says something about their bravery, honesty and their wisdom that they have not only been willing to include some of the most challenging moments of their lives but not just allowed it, encouraged it'
Davy Rothbart on the Sanford family: 'I think it’s pretty unusual and it says something about their bravery, honesty and their wisdom that they have not only been willing to include some of the most challenging moments of their lives but not just allowed it, encouraged it' Photo: Beachside Films
Davy Rothbart’s documentary 17 Blocks is the latest in a growing trend for films including a lot of self-documentation, in this case captured by Rothbart and several generations of the Sanford family across a 20-year period. They live in a part of Washington DC just 17 blocks from the Capitol building but which is dogged by gun violence – an issue the family (mum Cheryl and children Denise, Smurf and Emmanuel), come to tragically experience first-hand.

Catching up with Rothbart fresh from the film’s world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, where it won an editing award for the sterling work of Jennifer Tiexera, he apologies for not having “succinct soundbites yet” but it’s no wonder considering the project not only spans a couple of decades but also saw his own life become fully intertwined with that of the family.

He met them in 1999, a couple of years after he had left college, when he was living in south-east Washington DC with a friend.

Rothbart adds: “I was trying to do some writing and I also just bought this new video camera that I wanted to learn how to use. In 1999, it was state-of-the-art.

“My friend was at work during the day so I had time on my hands, so I would play basketball almost every day. Smurf was one of the kids that would play there. I was 23, he was 15, but he was a nice, charismatic guy. We started talking a lot and I really liked him. Then his little brother Emmanuel would always watch us through the fence and there if no bigger kids were around, he would come and shoot around with us. He was clever and funny and energetic and so I became kind of friends with him too.

Davy Rothbart on Emmanuel: 'I saw that he had a poetic eye'
Davy Rothbart on Emmanuel: 'I saw that he had a poetic eye'
“He would always want to play with us and, I think, one day to kind of keep him at bay, I just gave him my new video camera and said, ‘Why don’t you film us playing? That will keep you occupied.’ He really took to it and showed a lot of curiosity about filmmaking. At the time, I had a little idea for a fictional film and I thought he would be good to act in, so I suggested it would be good to work on it. He was into the idea and I went and met his mum, who lived a few blocks away and she was supportive of it. But we’d only been working on it a week or two when I realised the story was kind of stupid and wasn’t going to work. But, already, I saw that Emmanuel and Smurf and their family and their actual life were way more interesting to me.”

Rothbart started hanging out with the Sanfords, who like to say they “adopted him”. “I just really enjoyed being at their home,” he adds.

He soon realised Emmanuel, in particular, had a talent with the camera.

“I saw that he had a poetic eye,” he says “He would film little, visually lyrical things. We would walk around the neighbourhood together and he liked interviewing people on the street, asking them about their lives, so he was curious about other people. Sometimes, I’d start watching and he was shooting stuff out of his window, so you could see just a flag flapping in the breeze or tree branches shaking and I thought it was actually quite stunning. So I felt comfortable leaving the camera there. If he had broken it our someone would have grabbed it on the street from him, I would have been shit out of luck but I think he understood it was a very important thing.”

Rothbart says he realised after about six months that, because of the openness of the family, that there was a potential documentary and, a couple of years after that, in 2002, he and a friend even put together a rough cut of the film. But that was only just the start of a story that would continue over the coming years as Rothbart, despite moving away would come back and visit regularly.

He explains: “I would always bring a video camera and hang out for a few days or longer. Even though there was no grander notion of doing anything with it. It was one thing among many that we would do together. We always had Thanksgiving together and sometimes we spent New Years or other holidays together.

“They considered me family and I felt the same way about them. It was hard sometimes to see them really struggling. There are some periods when they lived in some of the most dangerous and worst areas of DC in dire circumstances. Some of those places aren’t in the film. There were some years when Cheryl was having criminal problems, so the family went through a lot. Some of it was really hard to see for a family I’d come to care about.”

The end result – which is partially shaped by tragedy but ends on a hopeful note – is a blisteringly honest account of the struggles the family went through, including Cheryl’s fight with addiction. Rothbart says its important that the documentary was a real collaboration between them all.

He adds: “Not only did they film a lot of it, but also they helped constructing the story, we’ve had one conversation after another over the years about what pieces they wanted to be in it. I think it’s pretty unusual and it says something about their bravery, honesty and their wisdom that they have not only been willing to include some of the most challenging moments of their lives but not just allowed it, encouraged it.

Davy Rothbart: 'They considered me family and I felt the same way about them'
Davy Rothbart: 'They considered me family and I felt the same way about them' Photo: Dan Busta/Beachside Films
“Most people when you’re making a film about them, they want to glamorise their lives and look good. But they, I think, realised, that by being extremely raw and honest, they were sharing their story in a way that’s ultimately more powerful and relatable in some ways. Cheryl has driven a lot of it because she’s seen a lot of her family members go through these things – whether it’s losing a family member to gun violence or struggling with drugs and alcohol. She has, over time, learned to accept herself for who she is and I think she wants other people to feel that they should be accepted for who they are. And she realises the way to encourage others to accept people for who they are is to be completely honest about who she is.

“I think most people imagine that in order to look good, you have to censor you life and kind of sugar coat it, I don’t think Cheryl was honest because it was going to make her look good, she just felt from the beginning that she didn’t want to sugar coat anything. She wanted to just share her life exactly the way it was, in the hopes that other people would connect with her story.”

The film isn’t overtly political but it illustrates the way that gun violence has had an impact on many people in the community – with a long list of names at the end showing just how many people have been lost in DC to it since the fateful shooting at the heart of the film. Others who have fallen victim to gun violence are captured on camera during the course of the documentary and Rothbart says that the list of names at the end in many ways feels “like a war memorial” to those who have lost their lives.

He adds: “The family has said that one of their goals in making the film is that they don’t want anybody else to suffer through what they have suffered through – losing a family member to gun violence. Cheryl said, ‘Maybe now they’ve seen our lives in so much detail, they’ll realise every one of those names could be its own documentary’.”

Rothbart says he also became aware of his own privilege as a white guy invited into the African-American Sanfords' home, often being mistaken for a cop on the street simply because of the colour of his skin.

“I was very sensitive to the fact that, as much as they did pull me into their family and made me feel at home, I could always step away to a safer and easier place,” he adds. “Although they are the co-authors of the story – Cheryl is the executive producer of the film – I still wanted to take pains to make sure the portrayal was sensitive and fair and an insiders’ perspective not an outsider person trying to tell this story. Besides the family helping me to construct the story and telling me what elements to include, we had a lot of feedback from other people in the community to keep eyes on it to make sure the story was being told in a fair and balanced way.”

The director says the film has “changed my life in a lot of ways”.

He adds: “First of all, just having friends and adopted family that love me and bring me joy and happiness. Just my relationship with them has been the most meaningful thing that’s come out of this. But, beyond that, I grew up in a college town and I was always politically conscious and aware of some of the challenges faced by people living in cities, but it wasn’t until I spent so much time living with this family and in this neighbourhood that I began to understand some of the systemic challenges that they were facing.

“I think we’ve tried to illuminate some of those in the film, but only by focusing so closely on their personal lives. It was a way to address some of these bigger issues without standing on a soap box. You just see some of the daily things that they’ve had to deal with.”

Inspired by the family, Rothbart has been running a yearly summer scheme, now in its 10th year, which takes kids from inner cities on a camping trip for a week – starting with just 12 kids but last year taking around 55.

Rothbart adds: “It really does seem transformational for the children involved, some of whom have never left their neighbourhood."

This is the sort of practical impact and change that the director hopes his film will add to as it travels to festivals including Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic next month.

“The film is complete, but I also think It’s the beginning in terms of sharing the film and its messages,” he says. “The social impact is important to the family and myself. I think using the film as a tool for change is a big part of the project as well and that’s just beginning and we’re all excited about that. We’re having conversations now about what specific calls to action, we want to address.”

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