Documentary filmmaker Marilyn Ness wanted to make a movie centering on the men and women desperately trying to reclaim the streets of Baltimore — both the people who live in the communities and the police who patrol them.
In the finest tradition of vérité filmmakers, Ness’ goal was not to cover the news, but to pull back the covers on it — to show not so much what happened as to try to understand why. Even after Freddie Gray died and Baltimore exploded four months into the filming of “Charm City,” Ness and her crew remained determined to address the underlying story, not focus on the headlines.
“Charm City” made its local debut at May’s 20th Maryland Film Festival and opens Oct. 12 at the Niarchos Foundation Parkway. Ness, who will be present to discuss her movie at selected screenings, sat down on the Parkway stage recently to discuss how the project arose, what she hopes audiences will realize and the picture of Baltimore she hopes emerges.
How did the project start? Where did the idea come from, and was the result what you envisioned at first?
As an independent documentary filmmaker, we kind of pick what moves us. And I was really moved by all of the deaths in police custody around the country. We were trying to understand, instead of all these cataclysmic moments we would see on the news, what was happening in the day-in, day-out in cities and in communities of color, where all of this cataclysm was happening.
What documentary does well is, it stays in one place, very patiently. So we decided to look at a city where we could be with the police separately and be with the community separately.
The first challenge was to find a police department that would be willing to let cameras in. We called the Department of Justice, and we said, “Where is a city trying to find a way forward?” and they said, “Baltimore, hands down.”
At the end of three years, we actually did manage to make the film that we set out to make, which was an intimate portrait of what it means to be a community member or a police officer or a councilman in a city that is facing a violence epidemic.
Are you happy with the film, and what do you hope will come out of it?
When we started — I’m a social-justice filmmaker, so I do have an intention with the film to try to make some positive impact in the world. So I’m thrilled that the Police Department used the film this summer to train their new academy cadets. … I’m thrilled that the police-community dialogues are continuing through the Baltimore Community Mediation Center. I’m thrilled that Safe Streets is actually going to be building a training for their violence interrupters as they expand in the city, and it’s being used in many different spaces throughout the city.
For me, to have lifted up people who are heroes in their own community and show that an individual can have a genuine impact — to be able to share that within Baltimore and really try to measure, ‘Can we help people find a way towards better dialogue, better conversation, better ways of contributing to the community.’ If that happens, if we can make that happen in Baltimore, I’ll feel really satisfied.
Was there anything about the situations, about the city, about your work, that kind of caught you unawares?
I think the thing that surprised me was how, no matter what was happening up here, or in the news or with the Freddie Gray case, life was the same for the officers on patrol and for the community members living in Baltimore. Not a lot changed for them, and that was something that just kept coming home to us — lives go on, no matter what’s happening, whatever big ideas. So that was, in some ways, an affirmation of finding the individuals trying to make a difference. And a revelation of how we all look to leadership to change things, but sometimes it’s the little guy that’s going to make the biggest difference.
We spent a lot of time in the Southern District ... the overdose capital of Maryland, and the opioid crisis is everywhere, on every block. It didn’t take very long for me to be riding along with these officers and feel how devastating it is to do their work, how helpless, hopeless, ineffective — and not because they’re not good people, but because what is a police officer supposed to do about a drug crisis we as a nation can’t control? About poverty and helplessness and hopelessness.
You’re aware of Baltimore’s reputation as being a very dangerous place. Does Baltimore get a bit of a bum rap?
The job we set out for ourselves, in terms of the film we wanted to make, meant that we were going to be spending most of our time in the land much like “The Wire.”
I benefited from the fact that I was all over the city in researching and casting and living and being — I was here for the better part of three years. And so I definitely saw the beautiful side of Baltimore and the great restaurants and the way in which it is vibrant and growing. More new restaurants would pop up all the time. The Parkway was an amazing space that they renovated. I would go guest lecture at MICA or Hopkins. So I really did see all of the benefits of the city.
But I did spend time in pockets of deep poverty, where it just feels like the resources just aren’t getting in — and not for lack of want by the people living there, and not for lack of trying by people living there.
So I think we need to understand that “The Wire” was filmed in pockets of the city, and those pockets have deeply entrenched problems, so a lot of them are still in place. “The Wire” believed that, no matter what, the system will crush you, people matter less, I hope that this film shows that people matter more, that the individual can make a change.
I’m from New York, and New Yorkers could take it or leave it. But in Baltimore, people love their neighborhoods, they love where they came from, they feel deeply rooted. Those are folks who are willing to invest in the hard work.