New Film 'For Ahkeem' Puts a Human Face to Difficult Social Justice Issues

Filmmakers Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest talk about their new documentary and how some youths labeled as bad kids are a product of larger failures in society, not their own.

Everyday, in basically every city in America, the country's youth are left behind. They're products of a system stacked against them because of race, income, and other socioeconomic factors despite their best efforts to make it through.One of those youths is Daje Shelton, a black teenager from St. Louis who is the subject of the new documentary For Ahkeem by New York-based filmmakers Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest.

At 17, she's already convinced she will never make it, just as her friends and family have increasingly become statistics. We first pick up with her story as she's standing in front of a judge who offers to enrol her in what is effectively a last resort: a court-supervised alternative high school for troubled students. Through a verite lens that follows her on her journey, Levine and Van Soest's film captures her experiences while illustrating how youths labeled as bad kids are a product of larger failures in society, not their own.

VICE Impact caught up with the filmmakers to talk about portraying the human cost of bigger social issues, the Black Lives Matter movement, and telling an effective story as outsiders.

VICE Impact: I'm always interested in what sparks creators to begin projects, so what was the thing that made you want to make For Ahkeem?

Jeremy Levine: As articles and research were coming out about the way that we over-incarcerate kids--and at what a crazy young age it starts -- that was the spark. Then we heard about Innovative Concept Academy in St. Louis through our producer, Jeff Truesdell, who works at People Magazine and had written an article about the school and Judge Jimmie Edwards and thought there was a film there.

At the time, it was the only court-supervised public high school in the country and came from Judge Edwards who got sick of sentencing the kids of the parents who he sentenced in the adult court. He recognized this cycle and tried to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

Landon Van Soest: The film is really about one girl and her experiences, but at the broadest level were our interests in education and justice.

Conversations about mass incarceration and how unequal that is isn't really a mystery to anybody who's paying attention. If you're a black man you're three or four times more likely to be incarcerated, but what was fascinating to learn, and at the genesis of this project to me, was those same policies and trends hold true all the way back to elementary school. At the earliest age we're conditioning young, poor, black kids to believe that they're criminals. The suspension and expulsion rates kind of mirror the incarceration rates for adults.

Van Soest (left) and Levine (right). (Impact Vice)

This film is incredibly intimate. Why focus on Daje instead of, say, the Judge?

LVS: Some of it has to do with the type of film we like to make and like to watch, but we wanted it to be an immersive experience with a strong protagonist. We specifically wanted to find a student at that point in their life facing these challenges and seeing how they deal with that in extremely critical years of being a teenager. We talked to about 30-40 different students at the school.

JL: The Judge is fascinating, and that could have been the route we took. But, in so many ways, he's self-realized. He's done all the hard work. But for Daje, while we were filming, everything was on the line in terms of what these systems of oppression were like. It was obvious she had so much trauma in her life already without any real outlet for it. We eventually discovered she had this amazing journal that she wrote in every night, and she eventually opened that up for us, and it became the narration that's the heart of the film.

LVS: If we'd focused on the judge we could have just preached the statistics, but what we're interested in doing is showing the humanity behind them by getting to know someone who is clearly charismatic and articulate who's trying to make her way through it.

Oct 20 2017, 11:30am

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