In this UNFILTERED blog post, Landon Van Soest, who co-directed For Ahkeem with Jeremy S. Levine, examines the implications, challenges, and responsibilities of making a documentary film across race and class.
A few weeks ago I was sitting down to lunch with Daje “Boonie” Shelton, the star of our film For Ahkeem. The event was organized by the Cinema Eye Honors to celebrate the “Unforgettable” documentary subjects of the year, and we were thrilled to see Boonie named among that group.
It was a rare opportunity to celebrate the vital role of documentary subjects, and to see those subjects paired with their directors. Looking around the room, there was a noticeable divide across cultural, racial, and economic lines between many of the storytellers and their subjects. Boonie and I were no exception.
Confronting this divide has been fundamental in every aspect of making For Ahkeem, and we are constantly re-examining how to responsibly tell another persons’ story. There’s no question that we need to champion more diverse storytellers, but that doesn’t discredit the need for all of us, despite our background, to expose injustice and advocate for change. Addressing inequality is essential in the pursuit of social justice, and it is simply not possible to address inequality in America without first acknowledging racial disparity.
For Ahkeem began with this pursuit of social justice. We were outraged by the harsh school discipline policies that are funneling kids out of school and into the judicial system in record numbers, robbing them of an education and undermining their future. So when we were connected to a Juvenile Court Judge in St. Louis who was bucking the trend and sending the kids from his courtroom back to school—a school he had to create specifically for this purpose—we were hooked.
But from day one, we found ourselves in the awkward position of being white filmmakers in an almost exclusively Black community. Any other setting simply wouldn’t have been a fair representation of the story, since the school-to-prison pipeline so disproportionally impacts Black and Hispanic kids in low-income neighborhoods. If we were going to tell this story, we were forced to confront our privilege and employ a tremendous amount of humility.
Since we don’t have the lived experience of the people we were featuring, we worked proactively to broaden our perspective, both on and off screen. We diversified our team, taking active steps to collaborate with women, people of color, and members of the community. We spent a tremendous amount of time in the school without cameras, and hosted a number of targeted feedback screenings with diverse audiences.
Still the most important collaboration was with Boonie herself. Acknowledging that we were a couple of well-meaning, bearded white guys telling a story about Black teenagers, we knew that we would need a strong, vocal partner on screen. After interviewing close to forty students, we found that partner in Boonie. She was open, courageous, and charismatic, with an outspoken desire to tell her own story.
We spent several years developing a trusting relationship with Boonie, one that is invested in helping her succeed according to her own goals. Often that has meant putting down the camera and talking through her frustrations, helping her with schoolwork, and yes, providing financial support in times of crisis. We were actively involved in Boonie’s life and strived to make the filmmaking process as inclusive as possible.
Though we edited the film to feel immersive (we wanted the viewer to feel like they were being dropped directly into Boonie’s life) it is actually the result of an open dialogue with Boonie at every stage. We made no attempt to be “flies on the wall,” but invested in developing a trusting relationship where Boonie would feel natural involving us in some of the most personal and challenging times of her life.
Ultimately she trusted us enough to share her personal diary entries and letters to her unborn son. Sensing a raw honesty in her writings, we worked side-by-side with Boonie to craft them into narration and perform them for the film. Any intimacy For Ahkeem portrays is a direct result of that kind of openness and that level of trust. As Boonie put it in a recent radio interview, “we became just like a little family.”
Now four years on, we’re amazed by all Boonie has taught us. Seeing this confident, courageous young woman address a roomful of documentary icons at the Cinema Eye Honors, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of pride for all we’ve accomplished working together, despite our outward differences.
For Ahkeem is the coming-of-age story of Daje “Boonie” Shelton, a Black 17-year-old girl in North St. Louis. After a school fight lands Boonie in a court-supervised high school, she’s determined to turn things around and build a better future for herself and her son. Through Daje’s intimate experience in and out of school, For Ahkeem illuminates the challenges many Black teenagers face in America today. The film will have its broadcast premiere on Tuesday, February 13, 2018, at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel (check local listings). Free online streaming will begin on February 14, 2018 on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org, worldchannel.org and on PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast.