17 Blocks, a documentary by Davy Rothbart, was included in my initial Tribeca Film Festival 2019 Pick-List because of the compelling and devastating use of a home-video archive. I was interested in archival-themed films, and I probably would not have watched this film otherwise. But once you see this, it’s tough to forget; it’s a family memoir that grabs on tight. The film was created due to a chance meeting, in 1999, of two kids at a Washington D.C. public basketball court and director-producer Davy Rothbart (a frequent contributor to This American Life).
Fifteen-year-old Smurf Sanford and his nine-year-old brother Emmanuel lived in the neighborhood, which is only 17 blocks from the U.S. Capital building but is a dangerous and decrepit part of the city that outsiders go to great lengths to avoid. Rothbart lived nearby and over time became friends with these boys and then their mother Cheryl and sister Denice. When Emmanuel expressed interest in becoming a filmmaker, Rothbart lent him a video camera.
The little boy began shooting home movies, a project that continued on and off among the family members for the next 20 years. The resulting footage, disjointed in its storytelling and often rough in its sound and light-quality, is earnestly pieced together by Rothbart and forms an intense portrait of a loving family dealing with life in a neighborhood defined by poverty, drug addiction and gun violence. Its authentic “cinema verite” approach includes filming of a brutal, real-life street beating and other harrowing scenes where the viewing audience will want to intervene, but we cannot. The pain of helplessly observing all the havoc and destruction in this film is part of its point, and its power. It is not surprising that this film won the Tribeca Film Festival Award for Best Editing of a Feature Documentary.
This documentary sticks to its guns, so to speak; it shows what was recorded.
One of the most memorable scenes in 17 Blocks is shot in a small, local store. The shop specializes in personalized T-shirts — the type that suburban-youth sports teams might wear. But this store’s most frequent order is for shirts honoring people who have recently died, their photos surrounded by messages of remembrance. The span between the printed birth and death dates is almost always terribly short. Watching mourners ordering these cotton tombstones is stunning in its ordinary, everyday nature. We get glimpses of how one person’s death affects others — the siblings, parents, friends, and how it ripples through the community. We watch in awe as broken people rise to take care of those around them.
The film insists on being entirely observational and objective and does not exclude scenes that are grotesque or offensive. Some critics are questioning the rightness of what seems at times like an invasion of privacy or superfluous sensationalism. But this documentary sticks to its guns, so to speak; it shows what was recorded. We do get some interviews and voice-over narration to soften and explain, but the film never looks away. It is a true document, for better or worse.
Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this film is that it exists.
Not all moments are bleak; the film shows us gratifying scenes of family dinners, dancing, celebrations, also Emmanuel’s high school graduation. We see moments of triumph and reasons for optimism — a second chance, a new job, people growing stronger through adversity, a younger generation with a brighter vision, all very personal and very real. The most powerful force in this family is love.
I imagine the filmmaker wanted an uplifting conclusion to his decidedly humanistic movie. But late in the story, when the lightening bolt of tragedy strikes directly into this family that we have come to know so intimately, it’s hard for the film to recover. We are reminded how this decades-long documentary is entirely unscripted, unpredictable and raw. Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this film is that it exists — that this family, even in their darkest moments, had the wisdom to understand the value in telling their story; they opened up their lives to the rest of us in an unusually courageous way. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions.
However, before the credits roll, we are presented with a screen graphic that dedicates the film to Washington D.C. homicide victims and then lists all their names from the last decade. It requires very tiny text to fit them all in.
From the Director’s Notes of 17 Blocks, we learn this:
“In honor of their slain family member, in 2010 the Sanfords and I started an organization called Washington To Washington (WashingtonToWashington.org), bringing groups of kids from their D.C. neighborhood on a week-long camping trip each summer to visit some of America’s most beautiful National Parks and Forests. We hike, swim, canoe, ride horses, play games, build campfires, make S’mores, and trade ghost stories. These trips can’t cure all of the challenges many of these kids face, but offer a chance for them to broaden their perspectives, experience the joys of nature, and discover worlds beyond the block they live on. In recent years, we’ve added groups from Detroit and New Orleans, and over the past 9 years we’ve brought over 500 kids to explore the Great Outdoors; this summer, we’ll celebrate our 10th Annual Trip. The idea of something positive coming out of tragedy has been heartening to us all.”
News: 17 Blocks will be part of the 2019 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, starting June 28. This is the largest film festival in the Czech Republic and the most prestigious such festival in Central and Eastern Europe.
News: 17 Blocks will go back to where it all started, taking part in AFI Docs Impact Lab in Washington, D.C., June 19-23.