Erik Ljung started out making a short. He ended up with an all-consuming, three-year feature that landed him at SXSW.
When a documentary film is at its finest, it takes an issue that is exhaustively covered by the media and finds a personal story within it that appeals to our common humanity and makes it real for audiences. The Blood Is At The Doorstep is such a film, intimately introducing us to the grieving family of a young, unarmed black man who was shot to death by a police officer during a routine wellness check, in broad daylight in the center of Milwaukee.
We meet the victim, Dontre Hamilton, through his remarkable family, most prominently his mother, Maria, and brother, Nate. Over three years following the shooting, the family members become unwitting activists, first simply searching for answers in their own case, and eventually becoming part of a national conversation. Maria is one of the founders of Mothers of the Movement, which caught wide attention when the group took the stage for one of the most powerful moments of last year's Democratic National Convention.
No Film School sat down with first-time director Erik Ljung after the film's premiere at SXSW 2017, where it received a Critic's Pick from The Hollywood Reporter. We talked about how the film took over his life, filming protests, editing with over 400 hours of footage, and more.
“I was going to be with them for a week and a half. I never thought it would last for the next three years.”
No Film School: Access is one of the great challenges in every doc. How did you get access to a family that was living through tragedy? How did you convince them that, out of all of these media people trying to talk to them, you were the one to let in?
Erik Ljung: I was an outsider in certain senses. But I was also an insider in probably a lot more ways than I was an outsider. I live in Milwaukee, in that community. I've done a lot of videojournalism in the area.
I actually worked on a very controversial case in Milwaukee—the Corey Stingley case—where I did a piece with Spencer Chumbley for Vice News. I knew a lot of activists and people in political movements from covering these stories. When I went to one of the early [Dontre Hamilton] rallies, I knew all these people who could vouch for me. Corey Stingley's father was at this rally and he introduced me to Dontre’s family.
Ljung: Their case didn't get a lot of national attention, so nobody was really trying to tell their story. I [said], "I would like to tell your story—hear your side of the story and follow you guys and see what you're going through." They seemed open to it because, at the time, they were kind of desperate to get their voices heard. So they took a chance on me. This is my first project; I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. I don't think they actually knew what they were getting themselves into. I was going to be with them for a week and a half. I never thought it would last for the next three years.
NFS: During the Q&A, one of the family members mentioned that you just kept showing up with your camera at first.
Ljung: Yeah. Like I said, I didn't really know what the game plan was. I didn't necessarily envision it as a feature-length project at the beginning, but the more I showed up, [the more] crazy shit would happen.
So I knew something was happening. I could see the growth in the family and Maria coming to life. But then Nate really starting to become a leader. When you start a project like this, you have no idea where the people that you grow close to are going to end up. I got lucky that I happened to be following this family because they're courageous and really grew into leaders from just everyday people.
“I didn't necessarily envision it as a feature length project at the beginning, but the more I showed up, the more crazy shit would happen.”
A lot of people in Milwaukee who are watching the local media think Nate is just going to protests every day and that's all he does. Nate is not an activist. He's a father. He was going to school full time and working full time when I met him. He's just another dude trying to get by. And then this happened to him. He was still doing all those things and doing the activism for his brother on top of it. And that's what I was trying to show in this film.
Their story is about how, when tragedy strikes, you're still a human being and you still have to live your life. You get thrown all into this world that you know nothing about and are expected to go up against the criminal justice system that's prone to protect itself. You're at a disadvantage in it.
NFS: As you mentioned, you filmed several protests. Do you have advice for folks who want to shoot doc scenes that might get violent or have police involvement?
Ljung: My situation wasn’t typical because I was so focused on: Where is Nate? Where is Maria? Where are the people that I'm filming? I think a lot of people that are doing video journalism are dropping in from a different city and they don't have close ties.
I never once felt in danger at any of these protests because I knew a lot of the people involved in these movements and they were very peaceful. And I knew that the police weren't going to touch a journalist, for the most part. I was covering this case for the New York Times for part of it as well, so I know they don't want that bad press.
NFS: Even if you don't feel fear, there are all these people around, bumping into you, and it’s chaotic. How do you physically navigate that situation?
Ljung: I always put a lav mic on my subject, and then a lot of the audio is just off a shotgun mic. I shot on a Sony FS7 with a 24 to 105. I had a pretty versatile lens, and that camera is very ergonomic. And I always the wear that Portabrace fanny pack because I'm shooting from the hip a lot on protests, and I can just rest it on there. It takes a lot of weight off my arms. I'll usually wear a strap, too, so it takes the weight off my shoulders.
I'm always thinking about coverage, too—I'm trying to get Nate leading the march, then I'm trying to run, get long shots, tight shots. I'm trying to get signs. I'm trying to get the neighborhood's reaction to the protest. I'm trying to get it from above, so you can see the size of the crowd. I'm thinking up all these things and picking and choosing when I can get those so I won't miss the A-content but will also get the B-roll I'll need to tell the story.
I’d also say pack light. I would wear a backpack sometimes, which makes it a little bit more cumbersome, but it was always a counterweight, physically, to my camera. The FS7 is very ergonomic, but it's a little front-heavy. I don't really do the whole shoulder rig thing because I find it more cumbersome than anything.
I've always been a Sony fan in terms of the usability. I started this project on a borrowed C100 because I didn't even have my camera, and I just got to the point where I felt guilty borrowing my friend’s camera every day.
NFS: On the flip side of those protest scenes, there are so many intimate scenes in the movie. I’m thinking specifically of the tea party, where there's a room of middle-aged African-American mothers sharing very personal stories, and you’re this young, white guy with a camera. How did you negotiate that type of situation?
Ljung: Well, I'd been filming with Maria for a couple of months at that point. We had filmed her talking about starting the Mothers for Justice group and trying to get it together, and I did know several other of the women in the group prior to filming that.
"I wasn't like, 'Oh, I got an amazing scene.' I almost felt like maybe I shouldn't have been filming that."
Still, I've seen that scene now two or three hundred times, and it still breaks my heart anew every time. It's such a powerful moment and for them to let me film that.... I felt a lot of guilt filming that scene. I went home and didn't feel good about it. I wasn't like, "Oh, I got an amazing scene." I almost felt like maybe I shouldn't have been filming that.
But I guess, the power of documentary filmmaking is you hope you can bring people into your subjects’ world and motivate people through their stories. Maybe this can help another family that, God forbid, would have to go through something like this.
NFS: I understand you were editing from 400 hours of footage?
Ljung: There's probably more than that. I mean, my editor was quoting me at 400 hours maybe eight months ago. We might be at 500. I think we have two 8 terabytes and one 6-terabyte of footage, and then we have it backed up three times. I spent 10 Gs, probably, on hard drives for this project. It's been insane.
NFS: So, then, how do you possibly look at all that and figure out what to do with it?
Ljung: We didn't get a lot of funding for this, so I was out on the road freelancing quite a bit. I wasn't even thinking about editing, because things were happening so quickly all the time. I just kept shooting, and it was daunting because I had these hard drives filling up with footage, and nobody [was] looking at it.
But, luckily, Michael Vollmann came in. He was moved by the story and he wanted to be involved. He works for a guy named Barry Poltermann, who edited American Movie. Barry was our advice guru and kind of consulted on the edit. He ended up letting Michael work on the film for five months and even donated a lot of his assistant editor's time to take a first pass at footage. The Milwaukee film community is small, but very collaborative.
Michael was also donating his time on nights and weekends for a long time to cut this and he's got two little kids and a girlfriend. I'm single and live alone. This gave my life purpose for the last three years.
“This gave my life purpose for the last three years.”
NFS: What were the mechanics of getting through all that footage and making decisions with your editor?
Ljung: This is the first time that I didn't control everything for a project that I've done, so it was hard to give that up, but I also knew this film would never get done if I was editing it, too. Fortunately, Michael is incredible as an editor, but also as a director himself. His short film The 414s played at Sundance in 2014, and so his knack for storytelling is incredible.
His decision-making is incredible. This is my baby. I've been working on it for all this time; the way he works is that we talk about the project and then he wants to look at the footage and absorb, and then kind of sit in a dark space and work on it. He'll come out with something, then we'll talk about that. Sometimes, he wouldn't respond to my texts right away and I'm like, "I can't freak out. He's got a family. He's got things going on." But this is all I've got. But sometimes he'd be out of the loop for a week or two just because he's working on stuff and he just wants to be left alone to interpret it without me telling him what to do. Then he'll come back with an assembly cut and we keep going back and forth. It's a constant conversation.
Once we got into South By, we're like, "Oh, shit. We're gonna lock ourselves in a room for 18 hours a day for the next six weeks." He couldn't avoid me after that.
NFS: How do you balance all of the different things you're trying to accomplish with the film, like conveying a social message without being too prescriptive?
Ljung: It's challenging. We removed a lot of scenes that were unnecessary that I really liked and our editor really liked. We had an hour and 50-minute cut as of six weeks ago, so a lot of really tough decisions had to be made. We cut out, like, 20 minutes in the last six weeks.
“It's a conversation that we're gonna keep having until we stop denying that this is an issue in America.”
We didn't want to paint it in a way that was unrealistic. This is a messy situation. There were some small victories, but there were a lot more defeats. It kind of ends like you think the family's getting ahead a little, but then it happens to another family in Milwaukee. It's a conversation that we're gonna keep having until we stop denying that this is an issue in America.
NFS: The story goes on, but you have to have a film that ends. How do you decide where you're going leave the audience at the end of your film?
Ljung: That was a hard part for us. The scene it ends with is where you have all these city officials and talking heads talking about how they're the ones who go into the community and change things. But then you look, and it's really the members of the community that are out there cleaning up and fixing things.
We filmed Maria doing the whole Mothers of the Movement with Hillary Clinton and that didn't make it into the cut because we wanted to keep [the movie] in Milwaukee. That was a nice platform for Maria, but what change was made? We wanted to show that this family was able to affect change in their own community, become leaders in their community, and have a voice.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
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