Marilyn Ness is a two-time Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont Award-winning filmmaker, who has produced films like the acclaimed Cameraperson (dir. Kirsten Johnson), which was released by the Criterion Collection and shortlisted for an Oscar; Trapped (dir. Dawn Porter; Independent Lens), which won a Peabody; and the Independent Lens film 1971, which was nominated for an Emmy. But she’s also made an impact behind the lens as as director, including with the PBS film Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale, and now with Charm City, an intimate portrait of a diverse group of neighbors, including police, citizens, community leaders, and government officials who, with grit and compassion, survive in and work to improve their vibrant neighborhoods during a violent three-year stretch in Baltimore.

“Ness’ careful quilting of compassion and action across her years of filming suggests a fight that won’t diminish for these citizens,” wrote Robert Abele in the Los Angeles Times. “The film captures up close the way violence transforms neighborhoods and families with an immediacy that transcends headlines or sensationalism,” adds Ben Kenigsberg in The New York Times.

Ness took a time-out to talk to us about the unusual way she approached making Charm City, how she got this disparate group of people to trust her, updates on how they’re all doing, and what lessons every community–not just Baltimore–can take from the film after people watch it. 

Why did you make this film?

Like a lot of verité films, we couldn’t have known what was coming as we started filming. What began as a search to better understand the divide between police and citizens landed us in Baltimore during the three most violent years in the city’s history.  We found ourselves with a constellation of characters — from police officers to community members to politicians — all tasked, in some way, with standing in the maelstrom. Instead of looking at the growing problem of violence in our cities through the castigating lens of the nightly news, we decided to do something radical. We looked at each of our characters and their daily struggles with deep empathy. The result, for me, was profound.

Charm City filmmaker Marilyn Ness
Charm City filmmaker Marilyn Ness

The stark reality is that the criminal justice system in this country isn’t working for anyone: not the citizens it intends to serve and not the police officers working within it. The failure of that system has bred distrust, a widening gulf of inequality, and ultimately, higher incidences of violence. We are seeing this in cities across America including Baltimore, Chicago, and St. Louis as homicides and gun violence climb at a shocking pace.

Unless we tackle the complexity of these questions from the point of view of those caught in the system, we will never get to the heart of what spurs distrust and consequently, violence and collective trauma in our cities.

In this post-2016-election world where the echo chambers drown out productive conversations, Charm City dares to wade into the most challenging questions facing police, citizens, and the leaders tasked with protecting them.  Though they are all ostensibly working toward the same goals, we untangle why they are seemingly, eternally, at odds with one another. Our intention is to build empathy where currently there is opposition, in order to open a long-needed national conversation where everyone can feel safe enough to participate.

How did you first get connected to Mr. C and what made you think he’d be a good “character” for your film?

One of my first research trips to Baltimore was a driving tour with the former Health Commissioner of Baltimore. (You start wherever you can when digging in on a new film and that introduction came early on.) When I asked former Commissioner Bielenson how I might find “the policed,” he said there used to be a community organization called Rose Street with a guy named Mr. C who made quite an impression on him.

Before I ever got to Rose Street I learned that when Mr. C and a colleague first set up shop on E. Rose & Ashland Ave the local gangs firebombed their community center. Mr. C pitched a tent and camped out for months while they rebuilt the center.

As the locals realized Mr. C meant business and the business was intended to be good for them, an uneasy and then easy peace ensued. With a story like that, how can you NOT go check it out?

Eventually, our local co-producer, Meryam Bouadjemi, and I paid a visit to Mr. C after the morning meeting. We weren’t sure what was up with this big group of guys milling out front but we watched Mr. C interact and we realized there was something magic there. Plus he just lights up the screen.

Police captain Monique Brown
Police Major Monique Brown

Can you talk about the different challenges you must’ve faced? Obviously getting the trust of all these different people must have been a big part of even being able to make this film.

Yes, one of the biggest challenges was maintaining access to the Baltimore Police Department through two different Mayors and four different police commissioners. We had to rebuild trust each time a new person came into the role.

Maintaining trust with our community subjects was also a challenge as the media descended on Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

Plus many people thought we were crazy to pursue an “empathetic portrait of both sides,” though now everyone agrees it fills a much-needed void in the national conversation.

We visited for a long time before we brought cameras and we stayed long after the media left. None of our subjects had ever been asked to share their view of the world and they leapt at the opportunity.

Is there a scene in Charm City that you especially can’t shake?

I know an audience favorite is the drumming scene intercut with the everyday life of police officers. That drumline and dance troupe was so amazing and it was just a cobbled together neighborhood band. Just goes to show how much talent is hiding in plain sight in Baltimore.

My personal favorite scene is watching Alex teach the neighborhood kids kickboxing. We understand by hearing Alex’s own story of false arrest at 16 layered against images of these young boys just being kids, how incredibly vulnerable they are to the same fate. Don Bernier, our editor, said so much about the historic and contemporary impact of over-policing without ever making it feel like an “issue” piece. I love that.

What have the reactions to the film been by audiences?

Audiences are incredibly moved at the quiet heroism in these communities. While difficult, most audiences express feeling hopeful after seeing Charm City.

Mr. C at night, in Charm City

Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share with our audience, or will you be willing to do so closer to broadcast?

Alex Long is doing well and has now expanded his kickboxing program into a real gym that serves 70 kids in afterschool programs. He is thriving.

Mr. C’s health is good and he is back in his seat at Rose Street doing what he does best.

Due to the success of Safe Streets reducing violence in the communities it served, the Mayor’s office is expanding Safe Streets to 10 sites around the city in 2019. (Might be worth confirming this today.)

Captain Monique Brown was promoted to Major in the Southern District.

Councilman Brandon Scott’s policy proposal to have the BPD coordinate with other city agencies has been implemented. Every morning at 8 AM the BPD meets with city agencies to see how they can better align their work.

Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott, in Charm City
Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott, in Charm City

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

I hope people realize that police are caught up in the same broken system and that we will need to include everyone in a conversation about reform if we want it to be lasting and effective. We also need to begin a conversation about trauma in violent communities – it impacts how communities process the violence all around them AND how the police process the violence they encounter day after day.

I also want people to realize there are Mr. C’s and Alex’s in every community and we need to find ways to lift up and support those working to prevent violence and hardship in their own communities. If we can address the root causes of violence by supporting communities from within, you will reduce the number of police interactions and encounters with the criminal justice system.

So what other lessons can cities that have been beset by violence learn from the community efforts seen in Charm City?  Particularly police departments and community leaders, who Americans often see as at-odds with each other.

What we learned from screening the film in Baltimore more than 75 times to over 4,000 people in very targeted screenings that were measured by our impact producer, Sahar Driver, is the following:

  • Charm City inspired hope that things can change across a vast majority of audiences. 90% left believing relations between police and residents can be improved; and 92% believed that crime and violence can be reduced.
  • Charm City drove home two vital ideas:
    • 98% of surveyed audiences agreed that community tensions are lessened when people have access to basic resources.
    • 96% of audiences agreed that resident-driven solutions make communities safer. This strengthens the belief that violence prevention should be treated as a public health issue and not merely a criminal justice issue.
  • Charm City softened the ground for improved relationships between police and residents. 94% of officers who participated in screenings left believing in the importance of improving relationships with residents.

If screenings of the film can be the starting point for programs that teach police how to engage with communities; or inspire municipal workers in local city government that their work in housing, sanitation, street lights, employment, transportation IS a form of violence prevention; or that local groups like Safe Streets and community leaders like Mr. C can be preventers if properly supported, thereby reducing the need for first responders like the police, we can reduce the harmful effects of over-reliance on the criminal justice system.

Basically, find opportunities to allow those at odds to see one another as PEOPLE. As Michelle Obama says, “It’s harder to hate up close.”

How did you get into filmmaking?

I wrote and directed plays in high school. While I didn’t think I had the chops for theater, I went to college for Radio, Television, and Film Production. My freshman year I had a Writing for Television class and over spring break I had to research and write a documentary. From that moment on, I was hooked!

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Man, just three!? I’m going to stick to docs because that’s at least a winnowing.

I am a lover of Grey Gardens, like most people because of the Maysles [brothers’] willingness to turn the camera on those who weren’t inherently famous and to do it with love.

Hoop Dreams was seminal for seeing the value of patience in vérité filmmaking. How to Survive a Plague is probably the most engaging and present-tense way of making historical films that I have ever seen.

And I have to put Cameraperson on that list, though mildly self-serving as I produced it. I think Kirsten Johnson pulled back the curtain on documentary filmmaking with great care and honesty, while simultaneously questioning the ethical complexity of the work and celebrating the beauty of it.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

I am producing several films but only one I can speak about now. That is Jamie Boyle’s very personal accounting of her family’s struggle with opioid addiction and how, as a country, we got to this point. I am also writing an original screenplay.

Editor’s Note: For those wondering why Ness needed two different crews to film Charm City, there was an interesting explanation in the film’s press notes:

During the difficult weeks and months following the death of Freddie Gray, and subsequent unrest, filming in Baltimore required a delicate approach. Once the nightly news cameras departed and the images of Baltimore on fire receded from the national news, our crews remained, much to the surprise of our subjects.  But filming with the ‘policed’ and the police is delicate work. We realized early on that the same crews could not be seen getting out of a police car in the neighborhoods where we were filming with community members; and vice versa, our crews couldn’t be seen hanging out on the stoop with the citizens the police routinely patrolled.

For that reason, we intentionally chose to film in two different districts (Baltimore is divided into nine police districts) when following citizens and police. For the safety of our crew and, more importantly, our subjects, we thus decided to have two separate film teams.  Andre Lambertson filmed mostly solo in the Rose Street neighborhood allowing him to develop a tremendous level of trust and intimacy in his footage. John Benam filmed the police with the support of sound recordists, restricting most of his filming to South Baltimore and therefore never crossing paths with the East Baltimore team. Only Marilyn and her local co-producer, Meryam Bouadjemi, would visit subjects on both sides; tremendous care was taken about who was on location when the camera was present. The result of this crew setup can be seen in the delicate interweaving of the two communities, allowing Baltimore to come to life as a character as much as the subjects in the film.