Charm City Director Marilyn Ness on Avoiding Sensationalism and How Women Are Shaping Documentary Films

The city of Baltimore suffered 309 homicides last year, the third year in a row that murders exceeded 300. “Ceasefire Weekends” and similar community efforts have been staged in response to shootings, but the numbers have yet to significantly let up. With the New York Times calling Baltimore a “tragedy” last month, it can be tempting to see the town as categorically hopeless, a spectacle of violence begetting equally spectacular media attention.

Marilyn Ness’ documentary Charm City—premiering on PBS April 22nd—frames the city’s citizens and leaders through a different lens, honoring the complexity of both systemic oppression and the inner lives of those it most directly affects. In depicting a town where Black Lives meet Blue Lives (that are, quite often, also Black Lives), her nuanced approach is anchored in the daily experience of very different, yet interconnected, forces: Mr. C and Alex Long of the Rose Street Community Center; Major Monique Brown and Officer Eric Winston of the Southern District, the area most ravaged by violent crime; and city councilmember Brandon Scott, the youngest City Council member ever elected in Baltimore.

Almost exactly four years since the death of Freddie Gray, Charm City pays tribute to these individuals’ daily efforts to change their communities at the ground level. I spoke with Ness during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, at which her film was screened.

What was the catalyst for choosing Baltimore for this documentary?

We started thinking of the film at the end of 2014—when there were a few high profile deaths of those in police custody. But we didn’t want to focus on these moments of cataclysm. We really wanted to understand what in the day-to-day nature of policing is allowing this to occur. The way the news covers it is that they just descend on one moment—you get no idea of before and after, or what the community is like. We called the Department of Justice—still under the Obama Administration at the time—and asked, “Where is a city that is trying to find a way forward?” We knew there was a lot of talk about reform, you’d hear departments talking about reform efforts. But they said, “Hands down Baltimore.”

At the time Baltimore had a plurality, though not a majority, of African American police officers. All of the city leaders were African American—the Police Commissioner, the mayor, the majority of City Council. It was a North/South town with a lot of deeply entrenched social problems. It just seemed like an interesting place to look.

So you hadn’t had a lot of experience in the city before.

No, my in-laws live in Maryland, outside of Baltimore, but I was coming from New York. It was a three-hour [commute] and I could be shooting.

Charm City seems in dialogue with recent docs like Whose Streets? and Strong Island—focusing on issues of violence and police brutality in cities often overlooked but recently thrown into national spotlight.

In the idea of profiling a variety of people in their day-to-day, we knew that the police department would be the harder one to get. We reached out to the department and—much to our surprise, and their surprise, I think—they initially said, “Where do you want to film, what district?” rolling their eyes like they’ve gotten this request for the hundredth time. And this was before Freddie Gray was killed. And I said, “Sir, I don’t mean to sound unprepared for this conversation, but I’d be curious to know where would you would have us film if you wanted us to focus on your efforts to change what’s happening in the city.” He was stumped, and said, “No one’s ever asked us that before. Come on down.”

Once we knew we had access to the police department, we began looking at the community side. I think that the inclination to put us in the same basket as Whose Streets is right—we both show the voices you don’t hear. But unlike that film, we were not looking for activists. With the guys we were profiling on Rose Street, when Freddie Gray erupted when we were filming, the thing that struck me is that nothing changed in the day-to-day lives of the people we were filming with. Their lives were as hard after as they before. They didn’t feel anything had really shifted. The activists who were working on the ground—and there were plenty—who were covered by the documentary Baltimore Rising, they weren’t the ones policed, the ones having a day-to-day struggle with law enforcement. How they were surviving, how they were being treated. So that’s the only major difference with Whose Streets? We were just looking for the day-to-day of your average citizen and your average cop.

Baltimore was unlike Ferguson, which had a patent lack of people of color who were in positions of political power, or on the police task force. The proliferation of documentaries on this subject reveals how these cities aren’t all the same. What happens in St. Louis or Long Island may not be true in Baltimore. You can’t just blame one issue.

Yes, you can find common ground in different places, but each city really has its own unique mess. Baltimore essentially lost its economy when the shipping left and the ports closed. The educational system was built for training vocational workers, but then the jobs left. Their city is deeply unemployed, and then to add to that, there were segregationist housing laws forcing people into ghettos. When you put people into these poor pockets without opportunities—no way out, no jobs in—you start to see decisions of desperation. That’s the sauce of Baltimore.

St. Louis is similar in that it is a Catholic city divided between the white and Black, which also often means affluent or middle class versus poor.

One thing I can say about Baltimore though is that there are lots of socioeconomic tiers for African Americans—plenty of well-to-do and middle class citizens functioning at levels of power and at levels of decision-making. The real conflicts with police were happening in very poor communities of color. Once the socioeconomics are understood, it’s different. The interactions are different—a very particular problem in Baltimore. But I think the film will resonate in different cities trying to figure out how to reconcile these two communities.

You and the two producers are all women, but not African American. How did you approach that in terms of entering these neighborhoods as an outsider? The camera seems so absorbed in community, and there seemed so much trust from the community. As a visual or auditory presence, you’re also almost completely absent from the film

We were very clear that we were white. With my business partner and main producer, Katy Chevigny—she and I are Big Mouth Productions—when we went down to Baltimore the first thing we did was find a local to help us, named Meryam Bouadjem. She started as production assistant and worked her way up to co-producer. She was so committed to her city and protective of her city, but also very well connected. We started together going around to look for community members, to figure out a way to enter the community. In any case, we did travel with a local Baltimore person, and let the people we met be the arbiters of “yea or nay.”

I’d heard of Rose Street from the former health commissioner of Baltimore. He gave me a driving tour of the city—it was one of my first research things I did. We started at Hopkins and then went down about two miles, and he said, “In that span of time, the life expectancy just dropped for men 20 years.” It was astonishing. So I said, “If I were looking for the policed, where should I go?” And he said, “Well, there’s this Rose Street Community Center.” Marion and I were on a tour of community centers, they were shiny, there were children’s dance and poverty programs—it really wasn’t what were looking for. And then we walked in Rose Street, and I thought, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but this is what we’re looking for.”

Did you have a Black crew or cinematographer?

We looked very strategically to find a cameraperson of color. Andre Lambertson was referred to me by Kirsten Johnson [director of Cameraperson, which Ness produced in 2016]. He has the biggest heart and he has shot alone over long periods of time. Originally a still photographer, he’s won many awards for getting himself into situations where you can really feel the humanity. We met and it seemed like a perfect fit.

We started out all going as a bigger crew to Rose Street, but over time the subjects—Alex Long, in particular—said, “It would be easier if the crew wasn’t so big,” so it was just Andre and I. And then Alex said, “It would be easier if you weren’t around.” So I would go down and do research trips and figure out what was happening and what we wanted to film, and Andre would go on his own. That’s when we really started to get into the neighborhood. It was better for Alex and Mr. C with Andre shooting. He had all the control for when the camera was on and off. There were times he’d tell me something happened, and I’d ask, “Did you get it?” And he’d say, “No, I wasn’t shooting,” because he didn’t like the representational issues. That was the name of the game. And I was like, “Fair enough.”

The film seems to do the opposite of sensationalize, which is what we’re so used to seeing when it comes to both people living in these communities and the police. Given that you were there for such a long period of time, what was the worst thing that surprised you? Or the best thing?

A few things pop to mind. We understood when we were doing our research that there are theories that when the police lose the trust of citizens because they excessively police, communities become less safe. That was a theory, but while we were there for three years, the city went from under 300 homicides in 2014, to the three most deadly years in Baltimore’s history. Per capita, year after year, they blew it out of the water. We were watching that unfold. Communities become less safe when they lose trust in the police. We capture that unfolding over three years.

Another thing I found surprising was that it was way more difficult to patrol with the police officers in the Southern District than it was to be with Alex and Octavia and Mr. C on Rose Street. On Rose Street, the beautiful thing is that there are families that are trying to get their kids up and out and survive. You watch the birthday parties and kickboxing classes and trips to the ocean. The things they would try to do to give this kids some normalcy, no matter what. On the police department side, we were filming in the Southern District, also known as the overdose capital of Maryland—in particular this chai district area. You see one call on the film where they were administering naloxone. That was the place where people went to die—it was really very sad. And for these police officers, there’s nothing redemptive. These people are lost. And the officers have no tools to deal with that—they’re not addiction specialists, they’re not mental health workers. But they get call after call after call. I couldn’t even be in those vacant houses on some occasions. I’d go in and would get nauseous.

It’s hard to even imagine the other senses from the actual footage.

One cop walked out and said, “Too bad you can’t record the smell.” We filmed an officer going up the stairs and clearing their throats to breathe. It’s just appalling.

For me, seeing that was harder. When you think about what we send officers to do, day in and day out, and if they’re lucky for 30 years to collect their pensions. I found that really kind of devastating. We know that policing isn’t working for communities of color—we saw clearly that at Rose Street. But what people don’t realize is that policing isn’t really working for police either.

And the film shows the overtime hours, the exhaustion on the job, and the frustration in terms of the bureaucracy of arrests.

And then of course the police are hammered because the homicide rate keeps climbing. And the police department will admit—Monique Brown, who was a captain in the film, but is now a major—has admitted in one of our Q&As that, “We have done wrong, we have been unlawful. I’m excited that the consent decree will allow us to train our officers to act lawfully, so that we can do predictive policing and be more helpful and constructive in people’s lives.”

Even that transparency is unique—in a lot of cities that does not exist.

Well, Baltimore really was a city that was very self aware about its flaws, and about its challenges. That was another thing I found beautiful was how much the city was trying—how many non-profits working where the government may not have resources, or perhaps aren’t deploying them the way we wish. But the community steps up. They really do try. There are just so many things to fix that I think people feel scattered in different directions.

But I have a lot of affection for Baltimore. I met so many really good people who are so devoted to their city. I asked Alex and Octavia, “Why do you stay?” And they said, “So I could be poor in another town with no family and no roots?” They know the socioeconomics aren’t going to shift.

Are you still in touch with the main characters?

We have been in touch—I went down and showed everyone the film at four consecutive screenings before we left so that if we’d gotten anything grievously wrong we could fix it. We did a Rose Street screening. Councilman Scott saw it himself, the three police officers saw it themselves, and then we showed it to the senior members of the police department. Everyone to a man said that the film was sad and is hard to watch, but reflects the reality that they feel. And Alex was really moved that his sister was remembered in that way—which was a testament to the love they had for Andre and the trust they felt with us.

As soon as Ashley was murdered, they called us within an hour—two phone calls. They said, “Do you have any photos of Alex or Ashley? We don’t have any pictures of them together.” And then the next call was, “Do you want to come down for the vigil?” We had seen these balloons around the city, but now to understand the humans behind those felt really important. To have been invited, and to dedicate the film to Ashley, was important to us. I think everyone understands—including the police—who gets left holding the bat when communities are less safe. People like Alex and Ashley and their families. It was an honor to earn their trust.

I think they were proud of the film. And they all came up for the Tribeca Film Festival. They met for the first time in the 16-person passenger van leaving Penn Station. It was awkward on the first day, but by the end the police officers and Alex and Octavia went out till 4 a.m. for drinks. They exchanged numbers and are now communicating on Facebook. We never wanted the film to be “kumbaya,” with some happy ending. But we do hope the film in real life will keep these conversations going. Like the facilitated dialogue that Councilman Scott started, we are going to create a funding structure so that these exchanges can happen not just between police and youth but also police and adults. The police are using Charm City as training for all officers.

It seems like there are more women involved in the making of documentary films than ever. And because of streaming, so many people are watching—there’s a hunger for it. So many of these docs are telling stories through a female lens, or are female-produced and female-directed. Whereas in narrative film there continues to be so few female filmmakers. As someone who’s both directed and produced, have you noticed this development?

I think funders are more likely to give women a chance with lower dollars. And so you see that documentaries tend to have lower budgets. But once you cross a certain bar in terms of budget level, that’s when you see women fall away. It’s the belief that we don’t know how to handle that movie. In the meantime, I’ve produced a number of films for all-women directors over the last six years—and they’ve been tremendously successful. They’ve premiered at Sundance, Tribeca, they’re award winners, Emmy winners. I think it’s bullshit that we aren’t trusted with more dollars. But I think as long as we keep upping our game and our craft, at least with the documentary world, we’re getting trusted more and more. At Big Mouth Productions—a women-led production company—we’re getting more and more faith. But we’re still playing at a much lower dollar level than I think we could be, or should be.

As docs continue to become popular as a source of news, 10 years from now so many will have internalized narratives from a female perspective.

That’s a piece of what makes Charm City matter to me. It’s a super testosteroney movie—a bunch of men, a lot of violence, the cops are dudes, the guys in the neighborhoods are dudes. But no one was looking at this with empathy, like, “What does it mean to be a human being living in this space?” To me that was a very female gaze, though the movie wasn’t about women. It makes me excited to think that people are getting their news through documentaries made by women though.

Basically you’re shaping history.

It’s a thrilling concept, and I’m cool with that.

What advice would you give women who are interested in film production?

One of the problems we’ve had is that anyone can make a documentary film—the cameras are cheap enough, the editing equipment is cheap enough. But we then fall into traps of falling into a place that lacks professionalism, or a business understanding. It can become a hobby. People don’t get paid, and it’s not sustainable. So I’d say, learn the craft and learn the business. Because it is a business. There are skills you need and there are ways to hone your artistry and creativity. I always say, go through the old model of learning by apprenticeship. Go learn with someone. You’ll learn how to make decisions for yourself, you’ll get better deals, and you’ll rise faster.

Is that how you learned?

Yes, one of the places I interned early on hired me as a producer seven years later. There was also a female producer—a woman named Shauna Gezit—who had done a lot of stuff for PBS and I was working on those with her. And she really understood how to work a budget, to make production choices that allow the dollar to stretch. Those were deep-dive historical docs, so we’d spent a year on one subject. I really learned how to research, how to pre-interview people, and cast people, and find people. I really learned how to make films. I think the gift of producing for talented women directors is that everything is so collaborative, you start to learn storytelling. I learned at the knee of the women whose films I helped make. I am proud to be raised by women in this way, and I make a point of reaching backward and pulling others up.

In so many fields, there can be a strange sense that there is only room for so many women, so women have to compete for the few opportunities they have.

I think sometimes we do get pit against each other in that way. For me, we’ll only get stronger if we continue to grow in our craft.

What’s one choice made in this film that felt driven by the female lens?

One creative choice was when we were researching and talking to people was this inability to see one another. Either you’re Black or you’re blue, this side or that side. We kept hearing from cops, “We’re never invited to the good stuff. We’re not there for the birthday parties or graduations.”

When we heard that Rose Street was having a block party, we very intentionally thought, “Great let’s go film.” And then a domestic violence episode comes up and ruins the party. For us at that party, we realized as the police car pulled up, that they had no idea what was going on before. They’re wondering why kids are on the streets at 11:30 at night, and similarly no one on Rose Street knew where the cop came from. Everyone just looked at each other and was pissed. When Andre was tasked with filming on Rose Street, we said, “Don’t ever cross the line. You’re with your people. That’s the perspective we want to see. When we’re in Rose Street, we stay with the people of the community. We’re standing where Alex is standing.” And we did the same thing with the police. You know you’re in the car with the police officer and you’ll stay with the officer. To force that shift on the audience—that you’re going to be in the perspective of the block party and feel angry at the police officer, but then you’re going to have to sit in the seat of a police officer rolling into a different scene and see the world through his eyes.

To me, that felt like a female choice. I wanted to feel one with—and not just cover the events. I don’t think a male director would have given the same direction to the camera people in that way. But it was the guiding principle for everyone who shot the film.