WAMG Interview: Davy Rothbart – Director of 17 BLOCKS
17 BLOCKS will have a national release on Feb. 19th, and will be virtual theatrical in more than 100 cities, through MTV Documentary Films and partner organizations Everytown for Gun Safety and Black Lives Matter D.C.
In 1999, 9-year-old Emmanuel Sanford-Durant and his Washington, D.C., family began to film their daily lives in America’s most dangerous neighborhood — just 17 blocks behind the U.S. Capitol building. They’ve been filming ever since. Made in a unique collaboration with filmmaker and journalist Davy Rothbart — author, editor of Found magazine, and director of “Medora,” 17 BLOCKS focuses on four generations of the Sanford Family, including Emmanuel, a promising student; his brother, Smurf, a local drug dealer; his sister, Denice, an aspiring cop; and his mother, Cheryl, who must conquer her own demons for her family to prosper. Spanning two decades, “17 Blocks” illuminates a nation’s ongoing crisis through one family’s raw, stirring, and deeply personal saga. The Hollywood Reporter writes: “The ironic title of Davy Rothbart’s ‘17 Blocks’ refers to the distance between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where the family at its center resides. It’s not a long distance geographically, but it might as well be worlds away, judging by the harsh realities of the daily lives so powerfully chronicled in the documentary, which received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.”
Davy Rothbart took the time to talk too We Are Movie Geeks about 17 BLOCKS and the Sanford family, who are at the film’s center
Tom Stockman: Have you taken 17 BLOCKS to many film festivals?
Davy Rothbart: Yes, we started it at Tribeca in New York and it’s played it a number of other fests. I haven’t been able to attend as many as I’d like. Members of the Sanford family have gone to some of the fests, and I have gone to some. And there have been some where we have gone together.
TS: Who shot this footage in 17 BLOCKS?
DR: It was a combination of me and the Sanford family. Some of the most recent footage my friend Zach shot, but 90% of it was shot either by me or a member of the Sanford family. Emmanuel Sanford shot some of the footage when he was just nine years old back in 1999.
TS: That’s what I thought. That’s what makes it such an unusual documentary. How did you get involved with this family?
DR: It was a real collaboration. I met Emmanuel and his brother Smurf, who was 15 in 1999, on a basketball court We hit it off and Smurf invited me over for dinner one night after we finished playing. That’s when I met their mother Cheryl and their sister Denise. The way Cheryl likes to put it is that the family adopted me. It really did feel that way. Here I was in DC, far from home in my early 20s.
TS: What were you doing in DC?
DR: A friend of mine had gotten a job on Capitol Hill with a congressional staffer. He thought the cultural atmosphere of DC was rather lame, so he invited me, an aspiring writer at the time, to come and live out there rent-free and just sleep on his couch. He lived nine blocks from the Capitol building. The Sanford family lived 17 blocks behind the capital building.
TS: Tell me about this neighborhood that the Sanford’s were living in.
DR: It was called at the time one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. here was an incredible article in The Atlantic the same year called ‘Notes on the Murders of 30 of My Neighbors’ that was about how prevalent gun violence was. The Sanfords had lived all over the DC area, previously in a neighborhood more southeast called the Anacostia neighborhood. It was really striking as most families in that neighborhood we’re just trying to get by, people like Cheryl and her kids. You could look up from almost any street corner and see the Capitol dome, so this neighborhood, which was dealing with serious poverty, was literally in the shadow of the capital. I had just bought my first video camera when I met the family and I was interested in filmmaking. It was nothing fancy, just a consumer brand camcorder. I learned to use the camera at the same time Emmanuel and Smurf and Denise did, because they took an interest in it. I always had my camera around, but I would leave it with them sometimes at night and on the weekends. We would roam around and film stuff together. I would interview them and they would interview me. When I would leave the camera there and come back, they would show me all the footage they had shot. It was obviously very raw and personal. Emmanuel had, I think, a real poetic guy eye and the stuff he would film was so interesting and we continued to film together for 20 years. But everything changed the night there was a death in the Sanford family. The first 10 years it was essentially home videos. There was no plan really. The night of the death, I was back here in Michigan. When I got there the next day, Cheryl asked me where the video camera was. I was unsure what she meant but she said it was such a common story with kids from this neighborhood. So many friends of hers in that neighborhood had lost kids in this way and that the difference this time was that none of their lives had been documented so thoroughly. She wanted to film all of this. She knew what the family was going through and was about to go through. She was in pain and suffering but she thought people really needed to understand what was going on. Throughout this project, Cheryl has really been the vision for the film. She’s so brave to be so often open and honest about her journey.
TS: Yes, but she does not come off totally sympathetic in your film.
DR: Definitely, especially for the first 3/4 of it but when you have a bit more context later on in the film, you understand her a little better. She always said that substance abuse is ugly and that people need to see it. She’s the one who wanted to be filmed abusing drugs. Most people would never ask to have themselves portrayed in these vulnerable and even unlikable moments. But I think you still see all of the love that the family has for each other. 20 years later, they are all still living together. It’s pretty remarkable.
TS: Did the Sanford family rent this house or did they own it?
DR: They were renters. It’s mostly all rental apartments in that neighborhood. Cheryl‘s father had owned a house which is where she grew up so her family lived there for a little while after her dad passed.
TS: Is this neighborhood 17 blocks from the capital building become somewhat gentrified over the years?
DR: Yes, totally but there are still pockets, other nearby neighborhoods just 10 to 12 blocks from the capital, that are bad. There is a neighborhood called Potomac Gardens that the Sanfords lived in for a while where there is still much crime and poverty. So one neighborhood might gentrify while the next one still has problems. But the Sanfords neighborhood is getting a bit safer and there is more of a police presence, but the rent has risen so much that many people can’t afford to live there.
TS: In your film you visit the house as it currently stands, and it’s almost unrecognizable. There’s a guy living there who has obviously cleaned it up and rehabbed it, put in new floors and such. When the Sanfords lived there, I was struck by just how much trash was strewn all over the place.
DR: Yes, I think that guy gutted and renovated it.
TS: He was nice to let you guys come in and film. How many hours of footage did you have to work with?
DR: About 1000. It was a three-year editing process. We were lucky enough to work with an editor named Jennifer Tiexiera. She’s talented and was so devoted.
TS: How has your film been received at film festivals?
DR: It’s been amazing and moving to us. It was a 20-year journey and the story means so much to us. It means a lot personally. We are excited about using 17 BLOCKS as a tool for change and want to show it to organizations like Black Lives Matter and the ACLU and gun safety advocates. We have a national release coming. We are going to be partnering with these organizations and others. Cheryl always said that there was just a statistic with all of these people getting killed in major cities, but when you get one victim and really get to know him, you connect with the issue. During the closing credits there is a list of 1200 names of gun violence victims just in the DC area. You could make a documentary just about any one of those people. It’s been an honor to be at the festivals with the family. We won ‘Best Documentary’ at the Woodstock Film Festival and we have been to Telluride Colorado . We won an award at Tribeca. It’s great just to play it for audiences but it means a lot to the Sanford family to win these awards and for people to see what a special story it is.
TS: It’s a very dramatic story. You could almost see it as a narrative, with these two brothers who are so very different. With this tragedy in the middle of the story, you could almost see it being adapted into some sort of narrative screenplay.
DR: Yes, I totally see that. In the right hands, I could see it being extremely powerful.
TS: What about Smurf? Has he kept clean?
DR: Smurf is doing awesome. Just this month he was promoted to manager at the deli that you see him working at in the film. Both of his sons made the honor roll at their schools this year and he’s a big part of their lives. Smurf was so lucky to have that judge on his drug case. She understood his potential. I think that was a rare outcome. Most judges would have tossed him in jail. I’d like for Law schools and young judges and prosecutors to see this film, just to give them a look at the human side of the people that come in front of them every day and to see what’s possible when people get another chance.
This interview was originally conducted when 17 BLOCKS screened at the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2019