We sat down with Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Alan Spearman about his experiences in making the short film, As I Am, paired with The House I Live In, airing Monday, April 8 at 10pm (check local listings). Both films shed light on the realities of poverty in urban environments, and while Eugene Jarecki’s feature documentary takes a harsh look at the war on drugs, Spearman’s film depicts an intimate, first hand glimpse into one of the poorest neighborhoods in Memphis through the eyes of teenager Chris Dean. Through the lens of Spearman’s camera, we travel through the streets where Dean grew up, in a poetic journey through the landscape of places, characters and experiences that have shaped who he has become.
What led you to make this film?
I’ve been a staff photographer at The Commercial Appeal [a Memphis daily newspaper] for 15 years. And it was ultimately a special project that was related to Memphis poverty. In 2011 Memphis was named the poorest city in the US on the census report. I’ve been known in the past to do special projects for the paper, longer-term kind of things. And more recently projects that involved multimedia or a film component to them. Chris Dean, the subject of As I Am, had gotten a summer internship at the newspaper. So I proposed the idea that we essentially write a poem by walking on foot through South Memphis just observing life. The idea was to do that over 8 weeks. We would collect these observations that would eventually become the script of the film and would also create a photo essay that would appear in the newspaper. Then for the final portion of the project when we had collected all these observations and met all the people that we wanted to work with in South Memphis we’d then make a film about it. So Mark Adams, the co-producer, co-cinematographer and co-editor, collaborated together with Chris and myself to create this piece.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
We obviously wanted to do what we do for the newspaper to inform our local community. But it’s done a number of things in terms of the message of South Memphis. It’s shifted the way journalists are thinking about journalism. It’s being seen as kind of forward thinking or trailblazing a little bit; by other people anyway. Also we’re really trying to keep working with Chris. Mark and I are creating a production company that we hope to have him involved with in some capacity. We’re exploring something that might resemble college credit and even a paid internship, or a maybe a scholarship fund comes out of this. We’re hoping that in addition to the production company that we’re forming that there’s also this social impact component to it. So we’re not just taking from the neighborhood or the people in our films, as storytellers sometimes do, but we’re hopefully able to give back in a way that is meaningful and educate people out in the world about South Memphis.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
Surprisingly there weren’t that many. There were certain things, like just the Memphis heat. Chris and I spent all day walking around in the neighborhood and we created this boundary based on where he grew up. All during the heat of Memphis, which can be unbearable to some folks. But it all was enjoyable and that made it part of the process. I think most people were interested in participating, and that’s to Chris’s credit. He has really good relationships within the community. I think the way that we presented ourselves people knew that we were earnest and trying to do the best we could. So we really didn’t have too many challenges.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Mark and I have both worked in intimate storytelling for a long time. And I think that when people saw that we were on foot, walking and just generally interested in everybody, then a lot of barriers came down. We got to know and become friends with everyone that appears in As I Am before we started filming them. There was about 5 weeks of preparation to film those last couple weeks of the project
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Janice [an amputee] climbing those stairs. I remember when I first saw that. I was just blown away. She lives at the top of those stairs and she does that multiple times a day. This whole pursuit was about a certain type of poetry and even as difficult as that is to watch there is a rawness I wanted to include. Because at some point we do hope in some way to be helpful to these folks. So I had to show her on the stairs if we’re ever going to be helpful in getting her off of the stairs. Will Janice move? I don’t know. She’s her own person and she might enjoy going up and down those stairs. It just seems absurd to me that a person in her condition ultimately has to live like that.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
In some ways I’m incredibly lucky to have The Commercial Appeal be supportive of even pursuing projects that resemble films. So I’m definitely aware of how difficult it is outside of organizations like that. If we can actually have Chris be part of our team in the future — he’s only 20 years old right now and he’s incredibly bright and talented — that, to me, ultimately would just be this great success. He generally is really interested in what Mark and I do. He has a lot of great ideas, and if we can show him some sort of path or at least help him pursue his interests that would be really great.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
We had things pretty well sorted out. There were a few things here and there. There’s a guy that’s a really talented flipper [street performer] on Beale Street and it just so happened that on the days that we filmed he wasn’t there. But he’s just astounding to watch. I wanted to include him, but he’s the one loose end we weren’t able to include. More or less things worked with the plan that we spent a lot of time on.
What are your three favorite films?
There are many films I like. But some that stay in my mind are:
Mother Dao, The Turtlelike by Vincent Monnikendam
The Dark Glow Of The Mountains by Werner Herzog
Ship Of Fools by Stanley Kramer
The Sheltering Sky by Bernardo Bertolucci
Where Is The Friend’s Home by Abbas Kiarostami
Any episode from The Decalogue by Krzystof Kieslowski
The Straight Story by David Lynch
Gummo by Harmony Korine
The Apu Triilogy by Satyajit Ray
Defect In Vision by Meiro Koizumi
I am also very influenced by travel, reading, listening to music and often get ideas when looking at paintings and sculpture. I like work by Andrew Wyeth, Francisco Goya, Eduardo Chillida, and recently while looking at a still life by Frans Snyder I came to an understanding about how to shoot a scene in South Memphis.
See As I Am along with The House I Live In on Monday, April 8, 2013 (check local listings) only on Independent Lens. You can also watch the complete film, above. To learn more about As I Am and the work of Alan Spearman, visit the website for the film.