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‘Lights of Baltimore’ illuminates the history, poetry and depth of problems plaguing the city | COMMENTARY

Banks of lights are illuminated beneath the City Hall dome where television crews work during an uprising following the death of resident Freddie Gray in 2015 after he was taken into police custody.
Banks of lights are illuminated beneath the City Hall dome where television crews work during an uprising following the death of resident Freddie Gray in 2015 after he was taken into police custody. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

From the very first words and images that appear on-screen in the documentary “Lights of Baltimore,” you know you are in the hands of a skilled filmmaker with some poetry in her soul.

“When I arrived in Baltimore, I saw its beauty, its strength, and its pain,” director-producer Sabrina Bouarour writes on-screen during the film’s opening. “I wanted to hear its voices.”

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After beginning with images that provide viewers with a sense of crossing a bridge and entering Baltimore, Bouarour takes her audience back in time to what looks to be the 1960s with a clip from a promotional film touting the city as the nation’s second busiest seaport and its sixth largest city, with more than 1.5 million residents.

It’s a city “growing faster than New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and most other big cities in America today,” the narrator says. “This is the real Baltimore."

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Beyond the old-timey boosterism tone of the narrator’s voice, the sense of energy and optimism in the archival video is painful to hear in these deeply troubled days of decline.

Bouarour quickly offers viewers the actual sound of pain in modern-day Baltimore as she cuts from the promotional message to the viral video of Freddie Gray being arrested in 2015. It includes audio of a woman screaming at the police officers who are dragging a handcuffed Gray to a van: “That boy’s leg looks broke. His leg’s broke, and y’all dragging him like that.” And then come the anguished screams of Gray himself as he is put into the van.

In an email to The Sun, Bouarour described the 83-minute documentary as “a portrait of Baltimore in the aftermath of the 2015 uprising, digging into the history of the city. … It asks: What has changed in Baltimore since 1968?”

Bouarour, a French filmmaker with a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, is too deep a filmmaker for easy or one-dimensional answers. Obviously, as the archival clip shows, there has been great decline from the post-World War II city on the rise to the Baltimore of decline today. But Bouarour goes deep in tracking currents of change as well as lack of change from the time of the riot in 1968 to the uprising of 2015. And she does it not only with her camera, but also by listening like an ethnographer to some of the people in the city working for social justice, more diverse artistic expression, historical analysis, policing, law enforcement and the legal system.

In answer to the question of what has or hasn’t changed in Baltimore since 1968, Elizabeth M. Nix, an associate professor of history at the University of Baltimore says, “If you go back to the Kerner Commission, which was the government report that the federal government wrote … trying to figure out why so many cities were erupting in the ’60s, the commission lists the number one reason as police behavior. Number two is inadequate housing, and number three is insufficient education. So, those conditions still exist."

Michael Greenberger, professor at the University of Maryland Law School, says, “The problems that lead to the kind of social unrest we saw in the streets of Baltimore are unique to Baltimore. They’re unique to Baltimore in the sense that the whole social fabric has deteriorated. So, you not only have problems with the police department, the schools are in very poor shape. The ability to provide health care is in very poor shape. The ability to have affordable housing is in very poor shape. So, what we’re seeing in Baltimore is not just a community-police problem, but a problem with the entire social fabric of services provided by the City of Baltimore.”

Bouarour doesn’t favor academics, as many documentary filmmakers do, in her work, however. In fact, even though she interviews across the civic spectrum, from law enforcement officials to those bitterly denouncing police abuse of citizens, she seems most interested in hearing what social activists, community organizers, street performers and artists have to say.

Kevin Moore, the man who shot the video of Gray’s arrest, laments the way Baltimore authorities use technology to turn certain neighborhoods into de facto surveillance states in Baltimore.

“You don’t have any privacy," Moore says. “You see those little bulbs everywhere you go,” he says of the CCTV cameras. “It’s like a huge jail cell. A huge prison is what this is minus the bars and the gates … A huge prison, because the minute I come out of my house, I’m constantly being monitored. Everywhere I go. Everything I do, I’m constantly being monitored. Just like over at the prison yard.”

Dimitri Reeves, a performer shown dancing in the streets during the uprising, provides some of the most thoughtful words and poetic images with his ballet-meets-breakdown moves.

“I was trying to bring peace in a moment of devastation,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘What can I do? I want to help. I want to do something unique, different while bringing positive vibes.' So, I thought, ‘Let me just go down there and dance.’ The street is a stage. It’s our stage."

Bouarour is wise enough to give plenty of a camera time to Reeves' dancing, capturing the way it embodies the energy, power and aspiration of the streets.

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Her camera point of view is mostly from the streets up. And there is a political statement in that, showing an empathy, if not solidarity, with the community members. That point of view also offers a harsh critique of the police helicopters that always seem to be hovering overhead, reducing citizens below to faceless, depersonalized ant-like figures on the street.

But there is also an aesthetic statement involved in shooting from the streets up as she is often using the sky as part of the background, a canvas against which to place some of the harsher, decaying images of Baltimore, wrapping the gray city of grit in a cleaner, kinder, brighter light. I can think of no other filmmaker who used the sky that way with Baltimore.

Even as the film offers its own distinct visual interpretation of Baltimore, it explores the battle over imagery of the city and the politics involved in different interpretations, framing and narratives from law enforcement authorities, citizens seeking social change and the media.

“I arrived in Baltimore in 2013 as a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University while beginning my Ph.D. in film studies at the Sorbonne University,” Bouarour wrote in a director’s statement accompanying the documentary. “Fascinated by the city, I stayed … I wanted to explore the city images and dig into its local archives. I became fascinated by the colors of its murals that beautify decaying buildings. I met street artists who wanted to change their city, discovered the city’s local art scene, its jazz history, its Club Music. I came to love Baltimore’s sound during the summer. It’s fireflies, its quirkiness, its mystery. I started diving into its past to better understand its present.”

The film, she writes, “is the result of five years of questioning a city I came to call home.”

I am glad she came, questioned and recorded the answers she found with such power and poetry.

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The film, which debuts virtually at the St. Louis International Film Festival will be available to view for free at www.cinemastlouis.org/sliff/lights-baltimore from Nov. 16 to Nov. 22. There will also be a screening followed by an interview with the Bouarour on Nov. 19. The screening is at 7 p.m., the Q&A at 8:30 p.m. Both are sponsored by John Hopkins Film and Media Studies Program. To screen the film, go to: watch.eventive.org/2020sliff/play/5f7e86b7b97aab004c581746/. To join the Q&A: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJ0sdu-upj8oG9RP0YaXWTzix6Y35cPfQk_x.

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