Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival goers were treated to a night of superb documentary cinema with the screening of “For Ahkeem,” by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest, last Wednesday. It was shown to a sold-out audience at the Chilmark Community Center, followed by a discussion with film subject Daje Shelton and filmmaker Mr. Levine, moderated by Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
The film, which took more than four years to produce, is the coming-of-age story of Ms. Shelton, a 17-year-old girl battling to earn her diploma in the marginalized African-American community of North St. Louis, Mo.. Ms. Shelton struggles to finish high school as she watches friends around her die or get sent to prison. As she works to better herself and her circumstances, she becomes pregnant, and must contend with the reality of raising a young black boy in a neighborhood four miles away from Ferguson, Mo., where in August 2014 teenager Michael Brown was shot by the police officer Darren Wilson.
“For Ahkeem” is a pinnacle of documentary film. Each scene is artfully composed, and the filmmakers were unobtrusive, allowing Ms. Shelton’s life to unravel like finely crafted fiction before your eyes. Ms. Shelton holds back nothing from the cameras, enabling her story to be told in a raw, powerful way. The movie is a stunning testament to the art of documentary film.
“We really wanted to craft this as if you were watching a narrative film,” Mr. Levine said. “That process went on for over a year, editing and re-editing the film.”
The movie is shot in a fly-on-the-wall perspective, using Ms. Shelton’s experiences to drive the narrative. We meet Ms. Shelton as she is facing Judge Jimmie Edwards, who gives her an option: Drop out of school or enroll in an alternative school. Ms. Shelton elects to attend the Innovative Concept Academy (ICA), which was founded by Judge Edwards to disrupt the flow of black and brown youth into the justice system and, ultimately, into prison.
Mr. Levine says he and his co-director Mr. Van Soest were drawn to make this film because of statistics they heard about the school-to-prison pipeline. Mr. Levine cited his incentive in rising rates of suspending, expelling, and overdisciplining of black and brown youth in the country, which contributes to higher rates of incarceration.
“The fact that Daje got suspended in elementary school and got told that she was bad from such a young age, it’s a crazy thing that we do as a country,” Mr. Levine said after the film. “When Daje and I first talked, she often referred to herself as a bad kid, but the person I saw in front of me was definitely not a bad kid.”
During the discussion, Mr. Levine and Ms. Shelton talked about the technical process and mechanics behind making the film. The pair of directors decided early on that they wanted to follow one subject to tell this story. After interviewing several candidates, Mr. Levine described how he discovered Ms. Shelton by accident.
“We were filming with some of her friends, and she literally wandered in front of the camera and stole the show,” Mr. Levine said.
“Why are we not surprised?” Ms. Hunter-Gault said.
“My friend asked me over to help braid my other friend’s hair … so I walked into my friend’s room, and I was like, Why are all these cameras here?” Ms. Shelton said. “The next day [at school], the judge came and told me there were people downstairs looking for me, and I thought, ‘Oh no, what did I do?’ We had a long conversation, and I ended up telling them stuff that I hadn’t even told my own mother. It was a long therapy session, and it helped, just being in front of the camera. I never really paid attention to it, so it was like an outlet for me to let everyone know how I was feeling at the time, that day or that hour.”
The relationship that grew between Mr. Levine, Mr. Van Soest, and Ms. Shelton was one of mutual respect and understanding, one that led to them filming some very intimate and important scenes. The pair were there when she was in class, being reprimanded by her teachers, hanging out with her boyfriend, getting kicked out of her house by her mother, and when Daje gave birth to her son, Ahkeem.
“There’s this idea in documentary that you’re a fly on the wall, that you blend into the background. I don’t think that’s true for anybody, but certainly not two white bearded guys from Brooklyn sitting in Daje’s room. It was more about that relationship we had,” Mr. Levine said.
“They respected a lot of my privacy,” Ms. Shelton said. “If I told them to stop recording for a while, they would just wrap up and stop. So it was respecting in a trusting, honest way.”
“Sometimes Daje would ask us to stop filming, but also she started working out this system where she would look at the camera and give us this face, and that’s when we knew it was time to give her a break,” Mr. Levine said.
Ms. Shelton also opened up about her experience getting shot at a block party, losing her cousin to a police shooting, and watching her community be ravaged by drugs, death, and police harassment.
“How do you stay so positive?” asked Ms. Hunter-Gault.
“I have no choice,” Ms. Shelton said. “I have to stay positive for them [my kids]. They mimic everything I do, so if I stress or I do anything, I don’t do it in front of them.”
Ms. Shelton also updated the audience on her and Ahkeem’s life. Ahkeem is now 2, and he was recently potty-trained. She also now has a 1-year-old daughter. Ms. Shelton finished high school, and is going to college in the fall to be an ultrasound technician.
Ms. Shelton’s boyfriend and father to her two children, Antonio, is currently serving a seven-year sentence for parole violations. “These are all nonviolent offenses,” Mr. Levine said. “It illustrates the way that kids get sucked into the system. It’s tragic.”
To support Daje as she takes her next step into college, go to fundrazr.com/supportdaje.