A New Video Project Examines The Rough Lives of Young People in The Violent Neighborhoods of Baltimore and Rio
Timothy Wilson is not a fan of The Wire. At all.
His voice takes on an angry tone as he accuses the show's creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, of "paying attention to what was going on years ago, not what's going on now. I'm not saying Baltimore ain't infested with drugs and murders, but not like they portray it with people getting killed and thrown in vacant houses every day." They should at least, he argues, "put a thing at the end telling what's fictional and non-fictional."
Wilson has a stake in getting out the whole truth about life on Baltimore's streets. He has spent much of his 18 years there, first on the east side, where he grew up in the Latrobe Homes projects, and later on the west side. Though he has no adult arrest record, he says he has been locked up on weapons and narcotics charges, and acknowledges that he has dealt drugs--adding, "but I'm not ashamed of it" with a level gaze at his questioner.
This waning winter afternoon doesn't find him on a cold corner, however. He's sprawled in a chair on the second story of a Southwest Baltimore rowhouse jammed with computer monitors. He is one of the creators of Violence Next Door: Growing Up in the Favela and the Hood, a new video documentary that lets young people mired in poverty and crime on two continents tell their own true stories, which receives its world premiere Feb. 22 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.
Sitting behind Wilson in the tiny room are Max Dunn, 27, whose video editing suite it is, and Mari Gardner (no relation to this writer), 31, a compact woman with a kind face. Her credit on the project reads "facilitated by," but not a single scene would ever have made it to Dunn's screens if not for her.
As she chats weeks earlier in her Patterson Place home, Gardner reveals that her social consciousness is deeply ingrained and runs throughout her life and work. As a teenager in her Oregon hometown, she volunteered with a program that worked with at-risk youth. After graduating from the Art Institute of Boston in 1999, she began living and working with "underrepresented populations" in trouble, first native Hawaiians in Hawaii, and later indigenous peoples in Northern Brazil. She would spend time with the communities, then make art commenting on their struggles. At a certain point she says, she began to see a new tack: "Instead of focusing on my work, which was talking about the community and about these issues, have it be a little more being creative with the community to help the community have a voice," she says.
Pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at MICA brought her to Baltimore in 2002 , where she continued doing community arts with the Community Arts Partnership, Wide Angle Media, and the American Visionary Art Museum, among others. She returned to Brazil in early 2006, in particular to the Northern coastal city of Recife and its favelas, the poor hillside ghettos common to most Brazilian cities. Her four-month stay produced Favela Rhythms, a documentary that allowed the young favela residents to man video cameras and tape their own stories and surroundings, as well as explore some of the stereotypes of favela dwellers.
In Brazilian cities, "people are scared to death of the people who live in favelas," Gardner says. Of course, she notes, "most people in Baltimore won't dare go into West Baltimore.
"It doesn't matter where you are in the world, anywhere that you're in a place where you're suffering oppression and a lack of resources, you suffer from a lot more stereotypes that are put on you. People have these fears of you from all these made-up stories or what the media says or a smaller minority that's causing trouble."
After she returned to Baltimore and screened Favela Rhythms at the Creative Alliance, she started seeing many parallels between the two places. "At the Q&A period after the [screening], people asked about the similarities between my work here working with young people in these neighborhoods and young people there," she says.
That idea inspired another video project. She recruited local participants through a West Baltimore nonprofit program called On Our Shoulders, run by Ray Cook, where she met Tim Wilson.
"A few years ago you wouldn't been able to get me to do nothin' like this," Wilson says of On Our Shoulders and Gardner's project. "I wasn't gonna go to that program. The police told me I had to go or I was going back to jail. So I went. But I made a good decision about what I did."
Gardner isn't kidding with that "facilitator" title. "I ran a film workshop--`here's how to use the camera,'" she says. "I teach them what I know and we start going for it." Beginning in April 2007, Wilson and the other Baltimore participants listed topics they wanted to address, people they wanted to interview, and questions they wanted to ask.
In July 2007, Gardner journeyed to Rio de Janeiro, and using connections gained through a Rio capoeira master she had met, landed in Maré, one of the largest and most notorious of Rio's favelas. Though some of her contacts dead-ended, she ingratiated herself with a local dance group, and navigating around the activities of the favela's violent drug gangs, set to work.
Violence Next Door is still a work in progress as Gardner runs through the rough edit on her own, more modest home editing suite. The opening sequence cuts back and forth between footage of West Baltimore and Maré, the scenes of poverty and streetlife often indistinguishable. From there, the 45-minute video focuses on young Baltimoreans and Brazilians as they tell their stories of dealing with crime and the police, of hard times, of trying to find something to help them deal with their surroundings. Wilson, looking years younger, makes an appearance standing in front of a bulletin board plastered with funeral programs, all featuring young faces, as he lists off how many of the dead he knew personally.
Even in its rough state, the video is revelatory. The project surprised Gardner herself, in fact. "I thought it going to be a lot more similar [in the two places] than it was," she acknowledges. In Baltimore, given the predominance of heroin and the widespread drug trade and gang activity, "the violence here spreads out and affects everybody in a way that's a lot more personal," she says. The video features interviewee after interviewee recounting family and friends lost to drugs or violence. In the favelas, the drug gangs regularly shut down the streets with gun battles, but Gardner estimates that maybe 1 percent of a given neighborhood's residents are directly involved, and heroin is all but unknown (marijuana and cocaine are the drugs of choice).
The weight of crime and drugs "doesn't affect people in same way that it does here," she says. "These [Brazilian] young people are going to school, and the community and family structures are incredibly strong."
Wilson is one of several Baltimore participants to take a hand in the editing, and was fascinated by the Brazilian footage. All things considered, he says he'll stick with West Baltimore. "The gunshots," he says, marveling at the near constant gunfire in the favelas. "It's crazy how they [are] sitting on the rooftop filming and there's shooting and don't nobody even care. Up here, if somebody's shooting somebody's duckin' or something. Down there, it's like a part of nature, like a bird chirping."
Just as startling, he says, was watching footage of himself from just a year and a half ago: "Looking at myself on film, how I was then, at the beginning of making the changes, and how I am now, I was like, Whoa, is that really me?"
Wilson's involvement with On Our Shoulders and Violence Next Door has helped him steer clear of a future in the streets. He is working a regular job doing asbestos removal and says he plans to get his G.E.D. "At first I was just bullcrappin' around with it," he adds with a smile, "but now I'm ready."
Gardner can point to Wilson's example to underline how important projects like hers--or almost any support or mentoring young people living in poverty can get--can be in helping them survive, and maybe even thrive.
"They need to have opportunity, they need guidance," she stresses. "With that guidance, there's a lot more possibilities for them. They're able to make choices in a much more positive sense versus what they think their only choice is." And this guidance need not come in the form of continent-spanning video projects; she points to a building across the street from her house where she had run a neighborhood art club for a handful of kids. "You gotta start small," she says. "It's not that tough."
The Creative Alliance debut of Violence Next Door includes a live web cam so the Brazilian participants can be involved. Days after the Baltimore screening, Gardner will hop a plane to Rio for the Brazilian premiere at a favela community center. "For young people, TV is everything, movies are everything," she says. "To put them in control of that? It really gives them some power, to take that camera, show everybody else what they think is important."
For Wilson, what's important is that the video help others the way working on it has helped him. "I woke up early," he says, summing up his message, "and I'm here to let you know that that's not the way you want to live.
"It's been a good experience," he says of the project, "but I'm tired of talking to the wall." There have got to be opportunities for him and other young Baltmoreans willing to leave the street life alone, investment in youth programs, recreation centers, and education, instead of investment in juvenile facilities. "Just give us a reason to wanna get an education instead of running in the street," he says. "It's good to make this documentary with my fellow youth, but we're not gonna keep doing this if they not gonna listen."
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