Interview: Davy Rothbart on Covering Sacred Ground in “17 Blocks”

“You can only grow but to love this family,” Carmen Payne says of the Sanfords in “17 Blocks,” a sentiment that may seem fairly evident even within the first few minutes of Davy Rothbart’s “17 Blocks” but intensifies over the 20 years that the filmmaker spends in their company. Like Carmen, Rothbart wasn’t part of the bloodline, but was brought in by their youngest son Emmanuel and welcomed with open arms by the family’s matriarch Cheryl, along with her other son Smurf and daughter Denice, all of whom may not have had much when they first met in the low-income neighborhood of Southeast Washington DC — Cheryl had taken a job as a caretaker that allowed for a roof over her family’s head only months prior – yet that hardly prevented the boys from inviting Rothbart over for dinner after a game of pickup at the local basketball court.

The Sanfords would end up sharing a whole lot more over the two decades that followed, having the same curiosity about the camera that Rothbart did as a burgeoning filmmaker, with all invited to surreptitiously collect footage of their lives for no particular reason. But suddenly – and tragically – it would serve a purpose greater than anyone had imagined when Emmanuel was killed in 2009, one of all too many young Black men who have lost their lives to gun violence in communities bereft of opportunity. With plans to train as a fire fighter and finding a partner for life quite early in Carmen, it’s understood that Emmanuel had his whole life ahead of him when he was taken away from the Sanfords, but with time Rothbart captures the full extent of the loss and the underlying socioeconomic circumstances that make it far from an isolated case as the drug trade rules the community, from Cheryl battling an addiction to Smurf finding dealing as one of the only ways to make ends meet.

Yet for as many issues as “17 Blocks” raises – its title being a reference to just how short a distance there is between the Sanfords and the U.S. Capitol Building where change could happen – what shines through is the strength the family draws from each other to carry on when they nothing else to lean on but one another. Twenty years after the Sanfords had offered Rothbart a hot meal when it was nearly all they had, the film extends that generosity in how the Sanfords knew that in spite of everything they lost with Emmanuel’s death they had a story that could be helpful to others and the result is as powerful because of the kindness and consideration involved as it is for what unfolds over the years.

Rothbart, who co-directed the tender Indiana high school basketball doc “Medora” with Andrew Cohn in the midst of all this and has worked in a number of different mediums, from writing the short stories collections “My Heart is an Idiot” and “The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas” to contributing to “This American Life,” shows the compassion that cuts across all of his projects in “17 Blocks” and while the need to finally release the film marks the end of one chapter for the artist, he explained how he remains connected to the Sanfords and will be for the rest of his days — notably (and charmingly) having to take a moment away from this interview to help set up Cheryl’s COVID-19 vaccine appointment – as well as the unique perspective brought about by piecing together a longitudinal doc and speaking to so many in telling the story of just one family.

After “Medora,” I loved the fact this all started on a basketball court…

I’m a bit of a basketball junkie, so it would make sense it happened in such an organic way. It’s a great way to meet people and Smurf and Emmanuel are special guys. It’s funny because I was talking to Smurf and Cheryl yesterday and Cheryl said, “Hey, how long were you playing basketball for before Smurf invited you home for dinner one night? Was it a few months? A few weeks?” And Smurf said, “Probably a few days,” which may have been the case. [laughs]

At what point did you know this was a movie?

Everything changed when Emmanuel passed because for years, we were filming almost like home videos. The night that Emmanuel died, I went the next morning to DC — I had moved away over the years — and I showed up just to help in any way I could and Cheryl’s like, “Where’s the camera?” She knew we had to film this. So many of her friends had lost children to gun violence and she had the wisdom and the perceptiveness to realize the value of all the footage we had shot over the years, so she was like, “This is different. Emmanuel has been filmed since he was a little kid and now rather than be seen as a statistic, people will be actually able to follow a kid throughout his whole life all the way leading up to his death.” So Smurf, Denice and other friends and I continued to film in the weeks and months that followed and what I didn’t expect is that we’d keep filming for years and years after that. It wasn’t until Cheryl’s grandchildren — Smurf and Denice’s kids were now 9, 12, 15 years old — the age that her children had been when I first met them in 1999 that it felt like it had come full circle and the time had come to edit this into a film.

What’s it like to look at footage you may have shot surreptitiously as part of a narrative?

Honestly, I had not watched every minute of the footage that had been shot [because] Smurf, Denice, Emmanuel and I would pass the camera around and sometimes they would film when I wasn’t even there. I’d leave the camera with Smurf for three days and then I’d come back and there were two or three tapes, these are hour-long video cassette tapes back in ’99, 2000. Sometimes I’d put them in and I’d watch 20 minutes of them and I had a sense of what was on them, but I never really watched all this, so to see all this wonderful, intimate and funny and surprising moments kind of pop up, it was really powerful.

And Emmanuel had a bit of a poetic eye. He would sometimes film unexpected things. He would look out his window and film the tree branches swaying or people talking in the street and their strange choreography — you couldn’t even hear their words, but moving around each other and he would film that for not 30 seconds, but for like 10 minutes. So all kinds of little moments bubbled up, especially between the siblings. You got a sense of the closeness of them. Emmanuel bursting into the room and Smurf saying, “Hey, stop filming me” or inviting him in sometimes saying, “Hey, let’s have a conversation.” I’ve gotten to know the family closely over the years and [while] I think they’re really amazing, I feel through the footage people are able to be welcomed into their lives. Even when she lost her son, Cheryl said like “I want people to be able to walk in my shoes and be able to feel what it’s like to be me in these weeks that are coming up because she had watched her friends go through this exact same thing.

Obviously, as a driving force behind this, Cheryl sounds quite open to let you into her life, but between Emmanuel’s tragic death and her own story of addiction, you’re going to all these difficult places – was it tricky to navigate?

Yeah, I want to credit Cheryl for always pushing me to include more raw truth than I might even think to. For example, Cheryl said to me one day, ”I talk openly about drugs with you, we’ve talked about it on camera. But you’ve never filmed me doing drugs. It’s an ugly thing. And people should actually see what it looks like. We have to film it.” And I thought, “Yeah, if that’s something you’re interested in doing, I think it would be powerful. We should do it some time.” And she’s like, “No, we should do it right now. I’m about to use and I think you should come in here and film it,” so I give her the credit for pushing the boundaries and [encouraging us to film] not just what we happen to catch, but to be intentional about how even the most challenging and painful moments are covered here because people need to see everything so they can really understand.

You include a moving tribute to the victims of gun violence in DC in recent years in the end credits that really gives pause. How did that memorial come about?

It was Cheryl’s idea, really. I was near the Vietnam Wall with her, just gazing at all those names and it’s a powerful memorial, obviously, and she said, “There should be a memorial like this for victims of gun violence in DC. I would like to see Emmanuel’s name up there with all the other people who had lost children.” The more we talked about it — there should be a physical memorial still — but we thought maybe there’s a way we could do that in the film. We were just [thinking initially] let’s collect all the names and see how many it is. It was over a thousand since Emmanuel had passed and each one of those names is a person with their own family and a circle of loved ones. Of course, the crazy thing is that’s just DC, so multiply that times all the other cities in the country and you can really recognize the vast scope of the issue.

We wanted to somehow convey that mass scope of this issue, but somehow just focus on this family, so I think [the memorial] allows us to suggest at the end, everything you’ve seen is one family, but it is being reproduced by the tens of thousands every year in this country. They’re missed and grieved and you could make a documentary about each one of those people whose lives have been lost. It’s an epidemic, and we hope that the film can just put people in Cheryl’s shoes and make people who don’t live in neighborhoods like this just be aware of what’s happening. That was Cheryl’s whole idea when it happened to her son was let’s put an individual face on this much greater problem.

I was moved also to learn that you help found a program – Washington to Washington in Emmanuel’s honor – and obviously, it’s more than just a film you’ve made. What’s it like to reach a point of letting this part of it go?

We’re really proud of Washington to Washington. It was Cheryl’s idea after Emmanuel passed, [thinking about] what could we do to help change the outcomes for kids in this neighborhood and she remembered that I always talked about taking Emmanuel hiking and camping because it’s something I grew up doing. I never did that with Emmanuel, but she said, “Why don’t we do it this summer and just grab some of the kids from the neighborhood that the family is friends with?” We took 12-15 kids from Washington DC to Mount Washington in New Hampshire and it was an amazing week. We hiked and camped and swam in lakes and canoed. A week in the woods is not going to fix all the challenges these kids are facing, but it was surprisingly transformational, just seeing the world is a much bigger place than just their few blocks that they live in and giving them a larger sense of possibility.

Every year [Washington to Washington] has grown. Our last trip we had 60 kids from DC and also now from New Orleans and Detroit, and over the years, it’s been hundreds and hundreds. Smurf and Denice come with us, as well as Cheryl, and some of the kids that came with us in the early years are coming back with us as counselors, so it’s been really special to see how much of a difference that something that little and DIY seems to have made in these kids’ lives, so we’re excited to keep continuing that.

In terms of releasing this into the world after 20 years, I think the family has done a special thing by sharing their lives so intimately, so bravely, and putting it all out there. They’ve made themselves very vulnerable to share some of the most painful and difficult moments of their lives, and this film is going to be a really special tool for change. There’s a lot of great organizations already doing a lot of great work to try to make a difference on these issues —we’ve been working with Every Town for Gun Safety and Black Lives Matter DC — and this film is giving them a chance to share like this is how these issues play out in the real world with one particular family. There’s so many institutional challenges in these neighborhoods and whether it’s unjust sentencing or generational trauma, and we feel like it’s the end of one thing because our filming is done on this project, but it’s also the beginning of the impact phase of this film. I’m glad the family is getting the love they deserve. They’ve done something really heroic here and I’m just very happy to be able to share it with the world.

“17 Blocks” opens in virtual cinemas on February 19th. A full list is here.