'For Ahkeem': How to Make an Authentic Movie About Someone Else's Story [PODCAST]
The Emmy award-winning co-directors of 'For Ahkeem' had to face the challenges inherent in telling the story of someone whose background is entirely different from your own.
Every documentary production faces some challenges in terms of ethics, truth, and authenticity, perhaps now more than ever in what some are calling a “post-truth era.” These dilemmas can be multiplied when the filmmakers come from very different backgrounds than their protagonists, especially if there’s an imbalance of societal power between them. This has been the case in several recent American docs that explore race—made by white filmmakers about black subjects. Just because this dynamic exists doesn’t inherently mean that the resulting films are going to be inaccurate or unfair, but it does mean that extra steps need to be taken to ensure that they’re not.
"We owned the fact that we were complete outsiders from the get-go."
This exact predicament faced my guests on today’s podcast when they made the beautiful, moving documentary For Ahkeem, which premiered at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. The film’s co-directors are two, middle-class white men from New York City, namely Emmy award winning duo Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest, and their subject is a charismatic, 17-year-old African American girl named Daje Shelton from outside of Ferguson, Missouri, where fellow black teenager Michael Brown had been famously shot and killed by police.
The story of Daje’s young life as portrayed in the doc has universal elements like falling in love and stressing about exams, but it is also an enlightening window into the low-income African-American experience at large—and no matter who you are as an audience member, you will undoubtedly root for their remarkable young woman's success. In order to overcome the challenges of telling such a story as outsiders, Levine and Van Soest made Daje a partner in the filmmaking process, and diversified the larger crew of people working on their film. I think you’ll really enjoy the very frank and fascinating discussion I had with the co-directors and one of the film’s producers, Iyabo Boyd—who is not coincidentally an African American woman—after For Ahkeem's North American premiere at Tribeca 2017.
Listen to the episode by streaming or downloading from the embedded player above, or find it on iTunes here.