My two must-see picks for the Seattle International Film Festival are “Romeo is Bleeding” and “Frame by Frame.” Both are documentaries, one is set in Richmond, California, and the other is set in Kabul, Afghanistan. Both films tell parallel stories of fire, violence, bearing witness, and the power of art as activism.
“Romeo is Bleeding” opens with our hero Donte Clark, a young black poet from Richmond, a city in Northern California’s East Bay. Clark is on a mission to document the ongoing story of the gang war between Richmond and North Richmond through a reworking of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” retold through spoken word.
“From ancient grudge break to new mutiny. With civil blood make civil hands unclean. Who won’t protect the children? Richmond is on fire and lord knows we all burning.”
“I’ve been writing since I was 11-years-old,” Clark says in a phone interview. “I started off writing raps and songwriting, mostly inspired by my brother, Derrick Clark.”
Derrick wrote a rap that Donte shared at school, which became Donte’s first experience with positive attention. “At the time I was going through a lot but I didn’t have a lot of people I could talk to,” Clark says.
Clark would act out in frustration and end up getting in trouble with his teachers. But he discovered is that he could take the very same emotions and issues that landed him in trouble in school and channel them into writing. “It showed me the power of the art.”
This was the beginning of Clark’s double life: part street, part prep school. It was the latter that landed him the opportunity to team up with his former English teacher Molly Raynor to create RAW Talent, a Richmond-based teen spoken word program. Raynor’s cousin, Jason Zeldes, directed “Romeo is Bleeding.”
The documentary focuses on the making of Clark’s play “Te’s Harmony,” his reworked version of “Romeo and Juliet,” as performed and co-written in the incredible spoken word pieces by the youth of RAW Talent. But the film covers so much more. It is the story of Donte Clark, the story of the bloody feud between Richmond and North Richmond—one in which Clark is inextricably linked by friends and family—but also the story taking place in cities around the U.S. It’s a story about police, poverty, murder, blackness, the role of industry and the lack of environmental protection in communities of color. It’s a story about grief, rage, and how it creativity can lead to transformation.
Thousands of miles away in another country the story is different, but channeling grief and rage into a creative process has a deep parallel. “Frame by Frame” is a documentary about four Afghan photo journalists: 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner Massoud Hossaini, Farzana Wahidy, Wakil Kohsar and Najibullah Musafar.
During the reign of the Taliban, all photography was prohibited. If the Taliban entered a home and found pictures, even those as innocuous as photos from a wedding, they would destroy them, then beat and sometimes imprison the members of the offending household.
With the arrival of the foreign military presence, people were allowed to take photos again, though many people are still wary of photography. The film begins with Hossaini running towards the still-burning carnage of a suicide bombing. As he runs into the night in the opposite direction everyone else is going, he motions to the camera admonishing the crew to hurry.
“Be careful,” he tells them. “ We don’t want anyone to think we are terrorists.”
In an age when the line between terrorism and activism can become blurred, both films expose the danger in bearing witness creatively. In one scene Farzana Wahidy, known for her rare and beautiful photography of women, goes to visit a hospital burn ward to take pictures of women who have been victims of immolation.
The doctor there dances around the issue before finally stating outright that she cannot be allowed to take such pictures because even though the Taliban is not in power, the hospital administration fears for their safety and the safety of the hospital itself.
What is taboo? What can be spoken, photographed, witnessed and repeated? When simply taking a photo is enough to provoke a suicide bombing, how can you build a career knowing that you are only safe as long as the political winds continue to blow in your favor. With the exit strategy in place for the foreign soldiers, who knows which way the winds will blow in Afghanistan.
Both “Romeo is Bleeding” and “Frame by Frame” captured a sense of uncertainty balanced with a need to act, to speak power to truth, to bear witness to all that has passed in order to begin to discern what possible future we could hope to live into. Whether poet or photojournalist, each walks the line between artist and activist, bearing witness and capturing an important moment in time, one when we must redefine the boundaries of our humanity.
Both films pose the question of what our futures will be if the violence continues. Richmond is burning. Kabul is burning. Is it up to us to put out the fires? Or are we too on fire?
“In the beginning when people was throwing that title around I was saying I was an activist and an artist,” says Donte Clark. “But now I look at myself as a person who has a big heart, a lot of wisdom and a gift from god, not only to speak, but to listen and empathize to write it down and make it believable so everyone can be heard and understood from a compassionate way.”
Seattle International Film Festival show times
Frame by Frame
May 16, 2015 AMC Pacific Place 11 10 a.m.
May 17, 2015 AMC Pacific Place 11 6:30 p.m.
May 18, 2015 Lincoln Square Cinemas 3:30 p.m.
Romeo Is Bleeding
May 17, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 5 p.m.
May 18, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 3:30 p.m.