Commentary
4:20 pm
Mon June 4, 2012

Documentary on culture of death gives city’s youth a voice

On Tuesday at 5:45 p.m., a 10-year old boy was shot in the face and leg at his birthday party. Bullets sprayed the gathering at Simon Bolivar Avenue and Clio Street, killing a 5-year-old girl and a 33-year-old woman. A few hours earlier, two assailants had robbed and killed a 58-year old man in Mid-City. Police arrested a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, the latter wearing a court-ordered ankle monitor.

More details will emerge about both incidents. Another summer envelops New Orleans with heat and gunfire. The fortunate will escape to cooler, safer hideouts while others hug to the shade and pray for quiet evenings. In six months or a year, we may hear about trials, verdicts, and sentences arising from this week’s violence. Cell doors will close behind lost children while dead children fade from public memory. The favorite colors of the deceased and the petty beefs that motivated their killers will slip away, known only to family members and neighborhood observers. From media pulpits and comfortable chairs, more powerful people will debate root causes and argue over solutions.

Rare is the effort that seeks the opinions of the crossfire zone’s most vulnerable inhabitants. As a community, we take our sides, point fingers, and play our positions, and rarely consider the vantage point of those wearing school uniforms and sagging jeans. Many claim to care for them, while just as many display fear of them.

In his upcoming documentary, “Shell Shocked: A Documentary About Growing Up In The Murder Capital Of America,” producer and director John Richie takes a bold step: He asks the African American youth of New Orleans what they think about the violence that surrounds them.

A rough-cut screening will take place Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Contemporary Arts Center. For an invitation, email scrubbrush@scrubbrushproductions.com

Beginning in 2008, Richie worked with local teenagers to record the world as they see it. He found adolescents who, while expressing the usual mixture of awkward bravado and mumbling shyness, told of a world that should shame all of us. He listened as a young man named Matt Gray explained, “In New Orleans, it’s easier to get a gun than a textbook.”

He heard children tell stories of police brutality, saw a roomful of students raise their hands when asked, “How many of you know someone in jail?” He watched as the next generation of New Orleanians dreamed of escape but doubted their own odds. He turned his camera to groups like 2-Cent, the Youth Empowerment Project, and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana that work on the front lines to reverse the nihilism and alienation that plague too many young minds. And he sat with the mothers of those who can no longer be heard.

“Shell Shocked” now is in the last stages of production. On May 22, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities sponsored a rough-cut screening and fund-raiser to cover the costs of final edits. When the film ended, I moderated a discussion with Richie, Lauren Bierbaum of the Partnership for Youth Development and Michael Wilson, an instructor at Dillard University and columnist for The New Orleans Tribune. Along with an audience of 100, we talked about the film and the kids at its center, about Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s State of the City address, delivered earlier that day, about the last few years and the decades that preceded them.

Audience members decried economic inequality and a culture that sensationalizes greed and violence. One man told of going to jail at the age of 15 for killing a man. He contrasted his path with that of his more successful brother, both of them fatherless. Heartfelt debate arose over responsibility and the potential for progress.

That evening, “Shell Shocked” touched a nerve. In five years of hosting public programs, I can’t remember a more intimate, respectful conversation among such a diverse crowd. Nor can I recall more concerned looks on the faces of moviegoers.

As Richie told me before the screening, “Shell Shocked” is a conversation starter. The reason it works, though, is because the filmmaker listened to the one demographic rarely invited to join the conversation. That evening, the voices of adults echoed with the fear we heard in those children.

I believe “Shell Shocked” can spark honest talk and, most importantly, a greater willingness to ask a young person what they think, what they fear, and how we can help. It is a conversation each of us needs to start this summer.

Brian Boyles is the director of public relations and programs at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.