While not as publicized as cases of police brutality and police shootings in cities like New York, Oakland, Ferguson, and right here in Baltimore, the 2014 killing of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee is as shocking and tragic as any.
The absolutely riveting and often angering documentary The Blood is at the Doorstep digs deep into this case and its aftermath, following Dontre’s family and surrounding community for three years. We get incredible access to Dontre’s mourning mother Maria and determined older brother Nate, both of whom become committed activists in the wake of Dontre’s killing. We also spend time with Milwaukee Police chief Ed Flynn, examining his response to Dontre’s case and the still-unfolding legacy of that response.
Director Erik Ljung has meticulously crafted a piece of essential viewing, one that has much to contribute to our understanding of the ongoing epidemic of police violence. We get to know the victim, and watch his family’s transformation into activits. We see the complex layers of engagement when a mourning family’s desires diverge from those of fellow activists, and feel their frustration and anger with institutional responses. Importantly, we also see the often-ugly role police unions and “blue lives matter” rallies can play in preserving an oppressive status quo. The setting may be Milwaukee, but it could just as well be Baltimore—and it’s a film every concerned citizen here should see.
MdFF was proud to host Ljung and his incisive The Blood is at the Doorstep during our festival last year, and on the eve of our 2018 edition, we’re excited to welcome him back to Baltimore with an updated cut of the film. The Blood is at the Doorstep opens this week at the SNF Parkway and Ljung will be present to host a post-screening Q&A at the 4:30 PM and 7:00 PM showings on Sunday, April 29th.
In anticipation of his film’s theatrical run, Ljung was kind enough to answer some questions from our programming team.
How did you first hear about the police killing of Dontre Hamilton?
Dontre Hamilton was killed in a public park just a mile from my home in Milwaukee. I heard about it as soon as it happened and followed developments daily in local news reports. I got involved when the family held their first public rally a couple months later. He was shot 14 times by a police officer responding to a non-emergency wellness check for someone resting in a public park. The facts of the case were troubling, yet in the day after the shooting the Police Chief placed all the blame on Dontre for being a mentally ill, homeless man, and criminal. Turns out Dontre was not homeless, nor was he an armed robber.
What were your first conversations with the Hamilton family like?
As soon as the shooting happened, I knew I wanted to be involved in some way. I have a cousin that I grew up with that developed schizophrenia and is literally homeless back where I grew up in Northern California, so the issue and the public’s response to the shooting hit close to home. In a situation like this it is extremely intimidating to approach a family about making a film when they are going through the worst tragedy of their lives and trying to find some sort of stability enough to fight back. I had to really examine why I wanted to be involved and if it would be worth it for the family. It wasn’t until they put themselves out in the public and held their first public rally that I approached the family and asked for their permission to cover just the rallies at that time. I had no idea, well, maybe a little bit of an idea, that I would be making a feature length documentary and spending the next three years of my life following the Hamilton family. It happened naturally over time. Making an independent feature documentary with no money is intimidating and I had to lie to myself early on that I was not going to make a film, just cover the case and bear witness as a document of proof to what happened.
How did your relationship evolve and grow such that you had intimate access across several years? At what point in filming did it become clear that you were making a feature film with a multi-year scope?
Once I filmed that first rally I was all in. I lived just a mile from the park where Dontre was shot, and that park served as the ground zero meeting spot for every rally. I had no excuse not to be there, and the media coverage completely missed some particular scuffles with police. I knew if I was not there, some of what was happening may never be seen. Those first couple weeks I saw the Hamilton family multiple times a week, and we started getting comfortable with each other a little more. About a month into filming we did our first extended sit down interview and we were pretty locked in from there. Filming family get togethers, HS reunions, the family at work, Nate at class, and taking naps at Nate’s house between trying to keep up with him all day.
Within months we had probably 300 hours of footage sitting on a hard-drive, and a local editor / director Michael Vollmann (The 414s, Sundance 2015) took notice of the project and asked if he could edit it. I was happy to oblige as he is the best editor in town and he was willing to work for free simply because he believed in the project and helping to spread the Hamilton family’s story. Michael worked under another great Milwaukee editor, Barry Poltermann who edited American Movie and Jim & Andy. It was incredible having those guys be so supportive of the project and without them this footage would probably still be sitting on a hard-drive and I would probably still be shooting.
“Everyone has busy lives, you really have to make the time to participate if you really want to see change, otherwise its just lip service.”
In what way(s) did making this documentary and becoming close to the Hamilton family expand and transform your understanding of the national crisis of police brutality and shootings?
I have worked a lot in video journalism for many outlets and you are always required to maintain journalistic integrity and not get too close to the subjects of the pieces you are creating. Documentary filmmaking is a little different in that you are spending 3+ years intimately connected to this family and it is impossible not to grow close and care about them. I never knew Dontre Hamilton, but after spending so much time with the family I started to feel their pain personally in a way that you would mourn for a close friend or family member that lost someone. The Hamilton family really is just the average American family that is fighting to make a better life for their children. Nate is ambitious, entrepreneurial, fun loving guy. And then tragedy struck, it can really happen to anybody, but it is hard to get people to care because these incidents seem so distant, until it winds up on your doorstep. These incidents are happening in every community, nearly 1,200 people are killed by police each year, so for every case you’ve heard of, there is probably another 100 you haven’t heard of. Our film really only touches on, just a couple cases in Wisconsin alone. There have been a handful of police shooting deaths in Milwaukee County alone since Dontre’s death in 2014.
One subtle but persistent element of your film that I think will resonate particularly with Baltimore audiences is the propagandistic role some police unions play in trying to control public opinion and stifle criticism. Was this something you had an awareness of before making this film? Is this something that audiences tend to remark upon when you take the film to different cities?
Police unions are incredibly powerful throughout the country. No politician wants to butt heads with the police union because no politician wants to be labeled as anti-cop or soft on crime. Those are career ending labels for politicians, so everyone tip toes around police unions and it is very hard to push through reformative measures in that climate. To be honest, I did not know a whole lot about the inner workings of city government, the criminal justice system, etc prior to making this film, but it is shocking to see other films like Whose Streets and see certain storylines play out eerily similiar to what happened here in Milwaukee.
Another nuance in your film comes through the occasional moments of discord between the Hamilton family and other activists as the family strives to ensure they’re represented in the larger Black Lives Matter movement in a way that honors Dontre’s memory and their wishes. Was it important to them that this element was represented in the film?
Our film had the opportunity to really film grassroots organizing at its inception with the Coalition for Justice and how it interacted with other groups fighting for similarly aligned social justice causes. Organizing can be messy, especially at the formation of a new group, and we documented that. There are ego’s and differing viewpoints on how certain actions should play out, mix that with constant media scrutiny, or worse, lack of media coverage, and an ever impending charging decision from the District Attorney that could happen at anytime, and these activists are in a pressure cooker race against time to get justice. At the end of the day, everyone is fighting for the same thing and their is a mutual respect there, but sometimes things come to a head and that is ok, it is just part of the struggle that these families face when trying to get justice for their loved one.
Your film includes footage of seemingly intractable “Blue Lives Matter” types. Have you witnessed anyone with this perspective evolve or transform their attitudes–whether through encounters with activists, through discussion and debate, or through encountering your film? Have you learned anything you could share about effectively speaking with someone who has a diametrically opposed viewpoint to your own on an emotional subject?
This is a problem that extends to all facets of politics right now. Everyone is hardline in their beliefs and if you budge its a sign of weakness. There is a call out culture that undermines discourse, and on the flip side their are antagonistic racist trolls. I find myself getting caught up in twitter and facebook debates, but it really isn’t healthy or helpful. Those confrontations rarely lead anywhere productive.
Sometimes the difficulty of a documentary like this is that you are oftentimes preaching to the choir, which is great, but you also want this to reach people that on the outset, might disagree with movements like the fight for black lives. I do not know if any hard line “Blue Lives Matter” types have seen the film, but I have definitely been approached after screenings by people that had been dragged to the screening by a friend, and they confessed that this film has offered them a new perspective and context to the fight for justice in police shootings. There have been people in my own family that felt very differently about these national cases, and after seeing the film were shocked that they were so steadfast in their, at times, blind support of police. I think this film has the power to challenge people on all sides of the spectrum which I hope can lead to discourse and people being involved.
What essential roles can documentaries play in deepening our understanding of a subject like yours that television news does not?
Documentary film has the luxury of not being pinned to a news cycle. Documentary filmmaking gives you time to process, investigate, and craft a story over years. You can present all of the details in context and with nuance and with a larger understanding as to why things are happening that is impossible to get in a 90 second news clip on a local television station.
By sharing the Hamilton family’s story, we were able to personalize the fight for black lives and add a face to this national epidemic. I think its easy for people to victim blame if they don’t know the victim, and particularly if that victim is discredited in the media and that person is no longer alive to tell their side of the story. The Hamilton family made sure that Dontre was not forgotten and disparaged in Milwaukee, and the film really captured that transformation from victims to leaders in their community.
I understand the film has changed a bit since the festival cut some Baltimoreans saw within MdFF 2017. How is the new cut different?
There have been new vital scenes added to the film including eye witness statements and scenes with the family, while simultaneously tightening the film to make it shorter. We also added an original score and finalized our color and sound. Its been almost 4 years since Dontre was killed, yet it still seems like there are new developments in the case, we made the film current up to October, 2017.
What is your hope that viewers will walk away with after seeing your film?
At the end of the day, I hope that the Hamilton’s story will help to inspire people to take a more active role in their communities. Nate Hamilton was apolitical and far from an activist prior to being forced into this fight. He referred to himself as selfish because he didn’t pay much mind to the news if it didn’t directly affect him. Right now, America is at a crossroads right now and a lot of people have strong opinions on how things should change. It is important to share ideas and discuss through social media, but nothing is actually going to change until people log off and role up their sleeves and get involved. There are a bunch of incredible community organizations in every city, seek those out and get involved. Not everyone has to be a speaker or protest in the streets. Find your role and how you can contribute and get involved. Everyone has busy lives, you really have to make the time to participate if you really want to see change, otherwise its just lip service.
What are you working on now?
Since completing the film, I have jumped headfirst back into freelance work. Lots of small jobs, but a couple ongoing projects including shooting on a Netflix docu-series that is coming out sometime this year. Other than that, developing some ideas for the next project and trying to find a permanent home for this film. It’s a story that needs to be shared because there is a lot of victim blaming and misinformation that has been spread not just in the Hamilton case, but in many similar incidents.
What are some online resources people should follow for updates on the film, your work, and the Hamilton family?
The film is also on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Rate it, tell a friend, spread the word. This is an independently made documentary and we are fighting to find a permanent home for the film so the rest of the country can be inspired by the Hamilton family’s story.