POV: Why did you choose to follow the perspective of the mothers?
Tami Gold: I had been meeting with other independent filmmakers about this issue for a long time. When Amadou Diallo was killed, I couldn’t sit still any longer. I went to Amadou’s funeral and I spoke to one woman after another who would say, “This is my son, this is every son in the community, this is every son that we have.” That is where the name Every Mother’s Son came from — the community told us what film had to be made.
Kelly Anderson: Tami and I are always drawn to intimate and personal stories that speak to larger political and social issues. We decided to do a film about police brutality when that issue was all over the news, and we looked for a way in that would be different. We realized that this movement against police brutality was being led largely by family members, and in most cases, by mothers. There was something so compelling and poignant about them.
Tami: Mothers speak a kind of universal language. Some viewers might not believe that these young men were killed for no reason, but if they had to go through the experience with another mother, they could identify. But we realized that viewers might think that a mother would always say her child was innocent. We had to elaborate on the mothers’ stories and bring in other voices. We had to work away from the tears and focus on how the mothers chose to fight the blue wall of silence, to fight the injustice, and to stand up not just for their sons but for the reform of a flawed system. Through this tragedy, which so many face, families and women became schooled and self-educated in the legal system. They are now at the forefront of these issues, talking about democracy, reform and policing. They now have to be at the table. They know the system.
POV: How did you establish trust with the families whose stories you followed?
Tami: I think the way to develop trust as a documentarian is to be a profound listener. You have to listen and you can’t judge. Sometimes you just have to be with people in their homes, putting the camera down and just looking. If I’m asking people to tell me about their lives, I’ve got to share my life as well. In the course of doing the documentary, one of my children had a baby. I would share that, so that I wasn’t simply being a sponge. I can’t ask people to give me their lives if I can’t give mine.
Kelly: It was a challenge. We walked into people’s lives at a moment that was really difficult for them. Sometimes we would meet people and they wouldn’t even remember us later — they were so surrounded by the media and inundated with emotion. We had to explain to them that we weren’t a news crew, that we were interested in filming them for months and maybe even years. The families saw us continue to show up, even after everybody else had stopped paying attention, and slowly we built a friendship with them.
POV: What was the hardest thing about making this film?
Tami: One of the hardest things was trying to figure out how to navigate the police. The police aren’t in the film, and as much as I understand their hesitancy, people need to know what it means to be a cop. In New York City, with one of the highest costs of living, the salaries for cops are among of the lowest, which doesn’t jibe. I wanted people to learn about the conditions for cops, but the film didn’t achieve that because we made a commitment to the film focusing on the voice of the mothers. And we had to be true to that commitment. It’s made me understand that we need another film that’s a really deep exploration of what it means to be a cop. We see police dramas on every channel but as I’ve become educated about what goes on in policing, I now watch shows like NYPD Blue with a totally different eye.
I think as every independent documentary filmmaker knows, we had to make some really hard choices. We were following other stories, other wonderful, powerful stories of women who were activists whose sons were killed. We chose to focus on just three mothers who represented very different communities. We had to let go of some stories and that’s one of the really painful jobs of being a documentary filmmaker.
The other really hard piece of the film involves crying. I don’t like the thought that in order to tell stories for social change, we always have to be crying. How can we do a film about mothers whose sons were killed by law enforcement that’s not about crying? We struggled not to make the women feel like victims, but to have them come across with dignity.
POV: What was the biggest surprise in making this film?
Kelly: I was surprised when making this film at how difficult it was for the mothers to get acknowledgement in the legal system. Without a special independent prosecutor, it’s virtually impossible to have a District Attorney indict a police officer. I became so frustrated along with these women because all they wanted was for somebody to say that what happened was wrong. They try for five, six, seven, eight, even ten years to get admission and they end up without. Finding out that the district attorney in Brooklyn had never ever indicted a police officer who had fired their weapon in the line of duty was pretty astounding.
POV: How does this film approach issues of race and class?
Kelly: One of the interesting things for me was experiencing the policing situation in the United States through the eyes of Kadiatou Diallo, who came from Africa. When she came to New York City she suddenly realized that her son was a “person of color” and that she was in a category of people who were unfairly treated by the police. Hearing from community members about what was happening shocked her. They would tell her that in the black community, in poor communities, young men are stopped all the time just because of the color of their skin. For her that was an eye opener. She had no idea. So I think her experience, seen in the film, gets at the reality that this country, when it comes to encounters with the police, is completely divided by race.
POV: What is your point-of-view on policing?
Kelly: I think that a lot of people believe that aggressive policing is a necessary trade-off for being safe. That is not true; we have a choice about how we want to deal with crime. Other cities like Boston and San Diego instituted partnerships between police and communities that were successful in reducing crime. Many of the aggressive policing strategies that were instituted in New York during the 1990s did not work either for the community or for the police. Surprisingly, many, many police officers were unhappy with aggressive policing — they felt that communities resented them. 109 civilians were killed by police officers between 1994 and 1999 under questionable circumstances. That caused community outrage. This is something that we all need to question and address.
POV: What does the film tell us about today?
Tami: Anthony Baez was killed ten years ago. What does it mean, Anthony, that you’re dead ten years? What would your life be now as a thirty-nine year-old man? A movement has flourished as a result of your murder. We have taken some steps forward but we have to tease apart the criminal justice system to create an independent system for trying police officers. I learned that profoundly in the process of researching and shooting this film. We have to begin to think about who police officers are and how their training can be enhanced. They should be working for, not just in, the community.
POV: What are your hopes for Every Mother’s Son as an outreach tool? Who do you want to see the film?
Tami: I hope this film reaches everyone. I see a diverse audience. Anyone who can say, “Oh my god, this is what’s happening,” and have some of their own anxieties substantiated. This film should shock everyone. I love to see young people watching this film because young people have so much elasticity in their thinking. I’d like them to be involved in thinking about change and helping to create a safe society where there’s respect for diversity. Young people need to be in those discussions; I don’t have the answers.
Kelly: The main audience in my mind was always people who weren’t convinced that there was a problem with police brutality. I wanted this film to speak to people who had the tendency to be concerned about problems in our society but who really didn’t understand this as a major human rights and civil rights issue. I wanted to open their eyes. I also felt that because this issue is so polarized, the film would be a way to create dialogue between people who might have negative experiences with the police and people who haven’t, even people who work in law enforcement. Many police officers support the changes that the mothers are advocating, things like community policing and having independent prosecutors for police brutality cases. It’s a complicated, dense issue.