17 Blocks


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

17 Blocks
"There's a searing honesty and immediacy about the footage." | Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

17 Blocks is the latest in what is likely to become an increasing documentary trend of films that incorporate a large amount of self-documented footage - thanks to the easier accessibility of cameras from the Nineties onwards. It follows on from the likes of Minding The Gap, while also recalling Jonathan Olshefski's Quest in the way that it follows a single family, in this case the Sanfords, over a long period - in this case a whopping 20 years.

The family live in the area of Washington that's just 17 blocks behind the state capitol. It's also one of America's most dangerous neighbourhoods. "Why do bad things happen to good people?" someone asks around the film's midpoint. The question hangs over the entire film, although director Davy Rothbart - who has been a friend of the family since he hung out with their eldest son Smurf as a teenager - lets the footage do the talking, without inserting opinion or overt politics.

From the start, there's a shadow hanging over the film, as we see single mum Cheryl, now in her Sixties, revisit her childhood home and hear a police call saying: "Someone got shot on the stairs." When we then flashback to meet her family - Smurf, then 15, Denice, 12 and Emmanuel, nine - we know tragedy is waiting for somebody.

There's no doubting the family has problems. Cheryl has a drug addiction that bleeds out into issues for her family. Referring to her eldest son's own drug use and dealing she says: "I can't blame Smurf because I exposed my life to him." Emmanuel is different. Small and smart, he's only interested in his fists as weapons and wants to be a firefighter. We dip out of their lives and back in a few years later, when we will see how a tragedy can have lasting effects for good and ill.

As this is home video, its inevitably rough around the edges - what do you expect from, at times, a nine-year-old DP? - but there's a searing honesty and immediacy about the footage, from a moment when teenage Smurf is getting beaten up while his friend keeps the camera running to the grim realisation that a trip to a T-shirt shop to get "memorial" designs printed is a well-trodden path for many in the community remembering the lost lives of those who barely had the chance to embark on them before violence intervened. Drug taking is also shown but it feels fully justified as part of the fabric of the family's lives - the 'warts and all' approach is part of what makes the film as a whole so deeply affecting.

It is tightly edited by Jennifer Tiexiera, who deservedly won an award for her work at Tribeca, not simply because of the sheer weight of raw footage that she must have had to work through but because of the way she maintains a balance between the many people in the Sanford-Durant extended family. Nobody is forgotten here and we see how the shooting referred to at the start impacts on everyone but also how optimism can remain in dark places.

The film becomes more structured towards the end, as "grown up", more artful camerawork begins to be employed rather than the homespun footage that has gone before, and we get the positive upswing to the family's arc that we've been desperately hoping for. But that doesn't make what happens any less true or realistic - if anything it stands as testimony and encouragement to the many families who, even if not always entirely successful, continue to battle for one another despite their circumstances. A final list of hundreds of names of those who have been killed by guns in Washington since the fateful shooting in the film and to whom it is dedicated, is a painful reminder of all the families who continue to have their lives shattered by violence.

Reviewed on: 03 May 2019
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Using two decades of intimate home video, 17 Blocks tells the story of the Sanford family, whose struggles with addiction and gun violence eventually lead to a journey of love, loss, and acceptance.

Director: Davy Rothbart

Writer: Jennifer Tiexiera

Year: 2019

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US

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