By Mike Cross-Barnet
Before Freddie Gray’s death, before the Baltimore Uprising, before the consent decree and the Gun Trace Task Force scandal and 300 homicides a year, Marilyn Ness wanted to make a documentary about “what was fundamentally broken between police and citizens,” and was looking for the right location for that narrative. She chose Baltimore, and in late 2014 began the three-year process that resulted in Charm City. The film, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City Baltimore, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and had its official opening at the SNF Parkway in Baltimore. It has been well received both here and nationally, winning attention on the festival circuit and positive reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere.
As someone from outside Baltimore, Ness was committed to “making this a truly Baltimore story.” That meant assembling a nearly all-local production team, which started by connecting with Meryam Bouadjemi, a Baltimore documentary filmmaker, as one of her co-producers. It also meant spending week after week exploring neighborhoods and meeting people all over the city, searching for the right way to tell the story. Then, about four months into making the film, Gray died at the hands of the police, and suddenly Baltimore was front-page news around the world. Charm City is not about the Uprising, but it could not possibly avoid it. Ness says she sensed an opportunity – an obligation, even – to finish telling a story that went untold after the national media swooped in to cover the civil unrest, then quickly disappeared.
“The film took on a new meaning,” Ness says. “There were so many people who felt Baltimore had been done wrong on the national stage. … We were there for months before [the Uprising], and we stayed put long after that happened. We felt a responsibility to help rewrite Baltimore’s legacy.” That required looking within, and beyond, the dysfunction and despair that is all many outsiders see.
The moral center of Charm City is “Mr. C” – Clayton Guyton, founder of the Rose Street Community Center in an especially rough stretch of East Baltimore. Through the force of his personality and relentless optimism (“Can’t get tired, can’t give up, things are gonna get better”), Mr. C commands the respect of all and manages to keep a fragile peace in the neighborhood. But it was just as important to Ness to show things from the perspective of the police. Charm City chronicles the experiences of several officers with very different stories, and does so with a sympathetic eye.
“The system is fundamentally broken, but police and community members are caught in the same broken system,” she says. “If you want to change it, how do you engage everyone so they can see and hear – and be seen and heard?”
Ness is determined that the conversation her film started will continue in various forms through a local “Impact Campaign.” To that end, Charm City is being used by the Baltimore Community Mediation Center to facilitate gatherings of police and young people, as was shown in one of the movie’s scenes. The Baltimore Police Department is using the film as part of its cadet training, and the Safe Streets program is incorporating the film in its successful violence-interruption initiatives. Ness is still connected to Mr. C, supporting his efforts to work with youth who are incarcerated.
Ness has been gratified by the film’s reception – first, by the individuals whose lives were portrayed in it; then, by the city of Baltimore; and finally, by a national audience. Charm City, which is distributed by PBS, continues to open in cities around the country and will receive wider exposure when it is broadcast as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series in April.
A native New Yorker whose company, Big Mouth Productions, is based in Brooklyn, Ness is a two-time Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont Award-winning filmmaker. Her previous work as a director and/or producer has delved into social issues such as reproductive health care and war crimes. She is the producer on two films that are currently in the works.
Documentary filmmakers frequently work with fiscal sponsors, which allows them to accept grants and tax-deductible donations without having their own 501(c)3 tax designation. Ness says she chose Strong City as her fiscal sponsor for the same reason that she made sure to hire local camera, light, and sound technicians: “It was important for us to keep the funding in Baltimore as much as possible, and we felt the right thing was to find a local fiscal sponsor to partner with. It’s a critical relationship that enables us to do our work as social justice filmmakers.”
For Ness, the association with Strong City – which has done community-based work in Baltimore for 50 years and has been ramping up its fiscal sponsorship program – was another source of local collaboration. There were other connections: Bouadjemi had a previous relationship with Strong City as her fiscal sponsor; and Fagan Harris, whose organization Baltimore Corps is fiscally sponsored by Strong City, joined the project as an executive producer.
One difference between Charm City and the way some fiction and nonfiction works have portrayed the reality of Baltimore’s streets is that Ness’ film leaves plenty of room for hope, even in the face of a brutal system. Some of what happens in Charm City is absolutely devastating – and yet, she shows that the cycle of violence and heartbreak can be ended. When a group of social workers attended a screening at the SNF Parkway, one of them stood up at the Q&A afterward and said, “my faith [in my work] is renewed.”
Although Charm City does not shy away from the horrors of the streets, “We found that audiences feel hopeful when they leave the theater,” Ness says. “I have a fundamental belief that individual action does matter, that people can make a difference … We have to figure out how to support the Mr. C’s. How do you continue to support people who are fighting the root causes of violence, so the police are needed less?
“As Councilman Brandon Scott says [in the film], we have chosen to use the criminal justice system to deal with everything we can’t figure out how to fix: mental illness, poverty, addiction. We’re shining a light on alternatives to the criminal justice system in the film.”