Filmed over a three-year period in Baltimore, Charm City tackles the difficult circumstances facing both the police and citizens. Directed by Marilyn Ness, the film is structured around the community members, local elected officials and law enforcement personnel—living and working in Baltimore during a period of sharp increase in homicides and following the police killing of Freddie Gray.
“What documentary does well is, it stays in one place, very patiently,” Ness tells Chris Kaltenbach. “So we decided to look at a city where we could be with the police separately and be with the community separately.
“The first challenge was to find a police department that would be willing to let cameras in,” she continues. “We called the Department of Justice, and we said, ‘Where is a city trying to find a way forward?’ and they said, ‘Baltimore, hands down.’
“At the end of three years, we actually did manage to make the film that we set out to make, which was an intimate portrait of what it means to be a community member or a police officer or a councilman in a city that is facing a violence epidemic.” To read the full interview, click here.
“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,” Ness says.
“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.”
“The film juxtaposes retired corrections officer Mr. C, a community organizer who runs the Rose Street Community Center, against Eric Winston, a police officer on the job for only two years. Sitting in the middle of these polarities is councilman Brandon Scott, an idealistic politician who wants to bridge between the police and the citizens,” writes Christian Gallichio.
“While Ness often expands the scope of characters to look at other facets of crime prevention including Safe Streets, an anti-violence initiative that employs ‘interrupters’— these three characters make up the main narrative thrust.
“What emerges from these three points of view is a city that has been thoroughly abandoned,” Gallichio continues, “as the police are forced to work overtime and, often, patrol alone. While Winston is a level-headed and tolerant police officer, he still is subjected to a slew of profanities and rants everywhere he goes. On the other side, community organizers like Mr. C have to maintain a constant presence to continue relationships. When he is briefly hospitalized for diabetes, the crime rate within Rose Street rises. Upon his return, he is forced to start over again, trying to ease tensions between the young adults that make up his community. Scott, additionally, is forced to contend with budget cuts and an unhappy city council that doesn’t know what to do about the violence. Often the council’s default reaction is harsher prison time and increased police presence, which Scott believes will only increase the feuding between the two sides.” To read the full article, click here.
“The stark reality is that everyone becomes less safe when police and citizens cannot overcome decades-long pervasive distrust and despair,” Ness says. “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— many of which have been neglected in polite conversation for so long, those conversations have only gotten more difficult—we will never get to the heart of what spurs violence and collective trauma in our cities.”
The film, she notes, addresses “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.”
During the weeks and months following the death of Freddie Gray, and subsequent unrest, filming in Baltimore required a delicate approach, Ness explains. “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,” she says.
“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 Ness and her local co-producer, Meryam Bouadjemi, would visit subjects on both sides amd 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 interweaving of the two communities, allowing Baltimore to come to life as a character as much as the subjects in the film.”
“My editor, Don Bernier, watched all the footage, and I would say to him, ‘humanity, humanity, humanity, that’s what we’re looking for,” Ness tells Erik Luers. He’d find these moments and he’d cut these little scene-lets, and we’d have hundreds of them, and they were awesome.
“But then we started putting them together and got to understand that it worked better to let them play a little while, to sit in a place for a while. We wanted to force these perspective shifts, and a really good one came when we were researching, you’d always heard police say, “We’re only there at the worst moments of these people’s lives. They don’t call us otherwise. We’re not there for the birthday parties, we’re not there for the graduations.” To read the full article, click here.