How does a community take its first tentative steps towards reconciliation when it’s been torn apart by acts of violence which speak to deeper, historic divisions of racial and economic segregation? While it’s a question which eludes easy answers, Andrew Litten’s thoughtful documentary St. Louis Rises, takes the rational approach of speaking to those most affected yet often not considered by the headlines and news sound bites – the residents. Andrew graciously walks us through the creation of this deeply affecting portrait of a community seeking a path towards harmony and understanding.
St. Louis Rises holds a lot of weight on my heart. This project was a massive undertaking that challenged the crew and myself at every turn, but around each corner was a breakthrough.
April 2016, the idea was formed. I was in pre-production for a job in St. Louis with two of my closest collaborators: Writer/Producer Gavin Guidry and Cinematographer Kristian Zuniga. We are always trying to find ways to maximize our time in the cities we travel to, and in general just soak up the regional culture as much as possible. I will obsessively scour through every piece of news I can get my hands on, solely from local publications that focus on the hidden details of their city.
There were tons of headlines addressing the death of Mike Brown, and the unrest in Ferguson, yet that had happened two years ago. Questions were being raised, and the anger was in the air. A lot had been unanswered. Even though these topics had been covered millions of times, so much hadn’t been vocalized. There was a deeper story that wasn’t being told – the story of the residents.
Gavin and I quickly started reaching out to our slim amount of contacts in STL. We needed to know more, and try to gain a sense of scale. One of our first calls was with Josh Wilson and J-Son of Mission St. Louis, whom I ended up featuring in the piece. What they, and many others, ended up telling us was how the city was yearning for common ground. The segregation and racism in the STL area spans decades, and there was a lot of empathy needed. Josh told us at the end of one of our pre-interview calls, “The band aid is still pressed firm over the city of St. Louis, and we are afraid to see what’s there once it’s pulled back.” This statement became the story we wanted to tell. What would it look like to pull back that band-aid?
Even though these topics had been covered millions of times, so much hadn’t been vocalized.
Once we found our story, Kristian and I started charging at the approach. The piece had to be grounded in talking-head interviews to give power to our subject’s stories, but I also wanted to make the subjects heroic. Together, we followed a rule of thumb as to not pull inspiration from other videos. We only pulled from artists/photographers such as Matt Black, Gordon Parks and Paul Kwilecki. This is where we decided on using whimsical cinematography to set the scene, the camera always had to be floating unless someone was talking. The interviews had to feel incredibly intimate, so we decided to shoot close-up on a 40mm lens.
Filming started in June 2016. On our very first scout day we paid a visit to the Michael Brown plaque, which is where his life tragically ended. While chatting with some of the people in the neighborhood, we met a man named Marcellus Buckley, known as The Ferguson Poet. He bikes around town reciting and handing out poems he has written dealing with themes from injustice to unification. He can now be seen reciting his poem, Thick Skinned People, as the opening scene of St. Louis Rises. The shot shows him reciting his lines on a hilltop that overlooks Brown’s crime scene.
After talking with tons and tons of people in the St. Louis and Ferguson areas, we kept on stumbling across moments like Marcellus’: glimmers of the community unifying. Documentaries can get intense when dealing with people’s schedules, and many subjects either had to cancel on us, or push back to a date that we couldn’t shoot on. Every day was a deeper exploration into the people in St. Louis, and spontaneity was on our side. Dwayne Ingram, a pinnacle interviewee in the doc, emailed us on our first shoot day. He had obtained our contact from another Ferguson resident and requested to be interviewed. A few hours later, we had recorded our most important interview. He has lived in Ferguson for 53 years, and lived only blocks away from where a bulk of the riots happened. His words reflected on those dark days, painting a picture for the first act of our short doc.
On our final day of shooting, we started at sunrise on the streets of downtown STL. Kristian rigged the camera to the front of our passenger van, so that we could get shots driving through every neighborhood that had been referenced in interviews. These shots became paramount in the edit, the connective tissue between stories and scenes. We then made our way over to an abandoned parking lot in East St. Louis to film a scene with a step team named the Gentlemen of Vision. We had heard about them from Jon Alexander, the photographer in the doc who also helped us with casting. GOV isn’t your ordinary step team, they are a group of students who are raised on strong values by their persistent coach, Marlon Wharton. Coach Wharton insures every GOV member graduates high school, and puts learning first. The GOV has grown to over 350 members and a 100% graduation rate.
We believed GOV’s performance would be a crux in the documentary. Their insurmountable courage lead them to transform trials, tribulations, and anger into art. Their movements can be either aggressive and rigid, or natural and fluid. Through their self-expression, we see the true sense of St. Louis.
St. Louis’ community is a role model for how a collective group of people can try their best to overcome tragedy.
The last week of June is when we finished shooting the piece. The first week of July, as I was just diving into post production, is when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s lives were separately taken. It felt like the optimism we captured in our interviews had briefly depleted. In between editing segments, I would glance at the news to see what new developments had happened, how their families were coping, and how the communities were dealing. It was here that I noticed St. Louis’ community is a role model for how a collective group of people can try their best to overcome tragedy. The resiliency echoes through every street in the city, regardless of invisible divides. It gave us the perseverance to push through the edit, and tell a story that was more honest and personal.
I believe that the world can learn a great deal from the people of St. Louis. While the bandage will never necessarily be pulled back, they learned how to stand up tall, attempt to empathize, and slowly create understanding amongst regions. Dwayne Ingram said it best, “Instead of pointing at the problem, complaining at the problem, and having platforms for the problem – be the solution.”
I want to thank our Producers, David Kwon Kim and Brandon Smith, for keeping us on track. Richard Adams, who handled live and post sound, Daniel Guadalupe, Derek Hansen and Vonavi who made our polarizing original music. Please check the links below to learn more about how to help St. Louis and Ferguson.