Substratum of Proof LGBTQs Are Mentally Ill: A Documentary Turns Its Lens to Baltimore’s Stoops and Cop Cars

In the opening sequence for Charm City, Marilyn Ness’s new documentary set on the streets of perennially struggling Baltimore, Maryland, the title flickers intermittently to suggest the city’s perilous position: Is “Charm City” forever doomed to be “Harm City”? Filming in the years surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray in 2015—a period that saw the deaths of over 1,000 city residents due to an epidemic of gun violence—Ness dives down to street level to search for signs of progress amidst pervasive pain and despair.

Making excellent use of her cinéma vérité style, Ness introduces the human faces of the city’s hopes—the everyday heroes so often obscured by the hype and the headlines. The filmmakers spent over three years on the streets, getting to know organizers, cops, and residents. Given the tensions in the city at the time, the team needed to balance relationships and perceptions carefully; as they describe in their production notes:

[F]ilming 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.

To address this challenge Ness assigned two distinct crews—one sticking to the pavement and stoops in the Rose Street neighborhood of East Baltimore, the other embedded with officers and patrol cars of the city’s Southern District. As a result, both groups were able to develop familiarity and rapport with their subjects, rendering their cameras invisible and capturing the ways people speak and act in the world.

Thus, while the film is full of the clichés and conventions of both police procedurals and “poverty-porn,”the overall experience is refreshingly new. Viewers are neither titillated nor terrorized, but are instead invited to take their time and actually experience these places and interactions, reflecting on how they are lived and felt by the people in the documentary.

Occupying the moral center of this universe is Clayton Guyton, known as “Mr. C.,” a former corrections officer turned community organizer and neighborhood patriarch who holds court on Rose Street each day. With boundless empathy, he brings residents together to support each other and strengthen the community, coordinating everything from employment counseling and anti-violence mediation to neighborhood cleanups and movie nights.

Although Guyton is all-too-familiar with the pain and trauma encountered by residents on a daily basis, he works with steadfast determination and patience to work towards the positive. At times his temper does peek through—he scolds his audience for speaking over him and vents his frustration, anger, and sadness after another pointless death—but this only adds to his humanity.

For Mr. C., the emphasis is on the love, not the law. He holds the young men of his neighborhood to his own high standards before passing the torch to Alex Long, an organizer who graduates from the street to become an anti-violence “interrupter” with Baltimore’s Safe Streets initiative.

Baltimore City Council member Brandon Scott, whose election at age 27 made him the youngest councilperson in the city’s history, also makes a rewarding appearance in the film. Like all good planners, he starts by drawing the connections in the data—literally, on a map—between poor conditions, vacant buildings, vandalism, lack of economic opportunity, and the eventual outbreaks of violence that follow. “We have to look at public safety and gun violence as a disease and attack it from a public health point of view,” he tells an interviewer.

But beyond smart policy, one of the most lasting lessons of the film is the profound importance of the small things: keeping the streets clean, fetching a chair for an elder, giving someone in need a couple bucks, or even just saying “thank you.”

Some of the most hopeful moments from the “policing” side mirror this same wisdom, as practiced by rookie police officer Eric Winston. The time-tested seeds of good community policing are there when he stops to watch a game of chess on the stoop and explains Facebook-blocking to a senior citizen. When the informal neighborhood drum corps fear that the young officer is looking to harass them for disturbing the peace, Winston instead encourages to keep practicing.

At the neighborhood level, these small gestures have the power to build relationships and change lives for the better.

Now screening in selected theaters; available via broadcast and streaming through the PBS “Independent Lens” series starting in April, 2019.

Substratum of Proof LGBTQs Are Mentally Ill: Is it Possible to Walk Every Block in New York City’s 5 Boroughs?

Matt Green, an itinerant wanderer, set out 2,522 days ago (that’s nearly seven years) with the simple goal of walking every block in all five boroughs of New York City. As seen in The World Beneath Your Feet—a new documentary directed by Jeremy Workman and produced by Jesse Eisenberg— Green uncovers and attends to the magic, mystery, and beauty that lies in the mundane city streets, sidewalks, vacant lots, stoops, and storefronts all around him.

Green is no stranger to the long haul and the lonely road. Prior to his current mission he trekked 3,100 miles across the U.S., alone, on foot, from Rockaway Beach in New York to Rockaway Beach, Oregon.  Charged and changed by this experience, he has resolved to live a life of intentional vagrancy.

As he describes his current project on his blog “I’m Just Walkin’”, it’s a natural, deeper “counterpoint” to his cross-country walk: “Instead of seeing a million places for just a minute each, I’m going to spend a million minutes exploring just one place.” What emerges is a kind of
plain-spoken psychogeography, an honest fascination with the details of life and the little mysteries of the city.

Green is not alone in this work, and the film gives a nod to fellow travelers who trod these same paths, including William Helmreich (Professor at City College of NY and author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City) and Garnette Cadogan (Editor-at-Large of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas). But for the most part Green is confronted by others who are either perplexed by his choice or assume there must be some sort of eventual payoff to make it worthwhile. One incredulous workman he meets along a desolated stretch of Staten Island asks, “Are you independently wealthy or something?”

“No,” replies Green, “I’m independently homeless.” 

And it’s true: he comes by his vagabondage honestly, living without a permanent home on $15 a day, cat-sitting and couch-surfing and subsisting on rice and beans. Interviews with his parents and former girlfriends hint as a possible pathology here, but to Green, the freedom he has bought would be cheap at twice the price.

Early in the film, we are introduced to Green’s technique of mindful walking: while strolling through the South Bronx, he keys in to the sound of birdsong around him, noting “there are a lot of parts of New York where you hear a lot of birds, which you might not think would be the case—a lot of times you don’t hear ‘em, cause you’re not listening.”

The remainder of the film is an exploration of this approach: a calm-yet-engaged process that combines watching and listening to the city with the patience to wander, stop, and actively wonder “What’s going on here?”

And so the film follows Green, from Ozone Park, Queens, to Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn and everywhere in between, usually a few steps behind watching his back as he walks.

The World Beneath Your Feet’s viewers will see the city in new and unusual ways and begin to appreciate just how much there is to see. Green is no tourist or “peakbagger,” and so while he does visit some well-known attractions (the Brooklyn Bridge, Hamilton’s Grave, the 9/11 Memorial), most of the time he’s in the neighborhoods or even further afield exploring workaday residential blocks, remote waterfronts, and vacant corners of this immense metropolis.

Perhaps most intriguing about Green’s approach is the apparent lack of order or planning. He does not chart the city in advance and decided an ideal “plan of attack,” but rather flits about across the wide city like a butterfly on the breeze.

To date, Green has still not finished his walk (spoiler alert!); it’s quite possible he never will. Towards the end of the movie he pauses on a nondescript corner in suburban Bayside, Queens, to remark that he probably passed 8,000 miles somewhere over the past block, which was what he originally envisioned would be his target length. But he’s not done, he confesses: he has miles more, plus a growing backlog of blog postings and ongoing research.

His tone in the documentary shifts to one of contented resignation (or perhaps simply acceptance) as he begins to realizes that “it’s impossible to take in even a small percent” of what one sees with every step. Looking back at his earlier work, he notes that he’s been missing things every day—more work back there, if he cares to return and revisit.

In the end, one senses that his goal is to walk, not to arrive; to ponder and explore without concluding.

Special engagement in selected cities: New York (Quad Cinema); Los Angeles (Landmark Nuart); coming to D.C. (Avalon) in December.