Holistic Storytelling: Tribeca Q&A with Bing Liu & Joshua Altman

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Mitchell Beaupre talks to the directors of All These Sons, a verité documentary about two community-based programs breaking the cycle of gun violence in Chicago.

Anyone familiar with the Oscar-nominated 2018 documentary Minding the Gap (one of the top docs of the 2010s on Letterboxd) will know the empathetic and personal approach that director Bing Liu takes with his work. Rather than austere interview-style footage cobbled together with infographics, the Chicago-based filmmaker centers human beings in the way he develops his projects. As we saw in that earlier film, this allows him to examine macro issues like domestic violence and toxic masculinity through the lens of intimate stories about real people. 

It’s a style of documentary that benefits him yet again with his sophomore feature, All These Sons, which has just had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Festival. Co-directed by Joshua Altman—an experienced editor on films including The Tillman Story, The Final Year, and Minding the GapAll These Sons looks at two vital programs in the south and west sides of Chicago, two areas where gun violence has been a dramatic concern for decades. 

While the city responds by putting more boots on the ground with increased funding for police and criminal justice systems, these community-based programs—IMAN Green Re-Entry and the MAAFA Redemption Project—attempt to break the cycle where it begins and create a solution as opposed to a reaction. 

The filmmakers embedded themselves for months within the programs in order to get the full experience of how they facilitate positive, foundational change in these communities. We are introduced to community leaders including Billy Moore and Marshall Hatch Jr., while also receiving an in-depth look at how this crisis of gun violence impacts the young Black men growing up in these neighborhoods. 

Joshua, you worked as an editor on Minding the Gap before making your first leap into directing here. What was that transition like, and how did your collaboration with Bing change now that you were working as co-directors? 

Joshua Altman: It’s weird. I would say, having edited a lot of other films, there are times where the boundaries get a little blurry in terms of what my role is outside of filming when it comes to being there and asking questions. That was sort of the new path that I had not taken before. Bing had never edited a documentary before Minding the Gap, and so the two of us came together and built this collaboration within that as he brought experience from working as a camera assistant and DP on a bunch of other projects. 

We helped guide each other through things. I would show him stuff I’d filmed and he’d be like, “This looks awful. Let’s not shoot it that way.” Part of it here also came from necessity, as we realized early on that our plans of filming things together were never going to work when we had to embed ourselves in two separate communities. We had to split apart. 

What was it about these programs specifically that made you want to present them on screen? 

Bing Liu: I’d been in Chicago for 10 years and the only other film I’d seen that tackled the solutions toward dealing with gun violence was The Interrupters. What these programs were doing felt a lot more holistic. It dealt with the conditions that produce violence in the first place. Seeing the number of people in the community who were both wanting to do the work, and also the number of young men who wanted to sign up for these programs, it made this the obvious choice. 

JL: I will say that initially when we started this, the idea was to start day one with a program like we did with IMAN and follow them over the course of six months to a year. With MAAFA they were already sort of into the program, but when I met Marshall and the other guys I was blown away by how incredible they were and knew that we needed to be here following them as well. 

This could have been a more conventional, talking-head documentary with interviews with the important figures, but you took the approach to embed yourself in these communities and follow these guys for an extended period of time. What did you gain from being there on the ground with them and following their day-to-day lives? 

BL: When we first shot a little bit of the pilot for the program I had taken it back to Josh and edited it together, and it felt like you just can’t tell this story in such a short window. I came up through Kartemquin and so I heavily believe in the power of vérité character storytelling, and Josh loves that style as well.  

You end up focusing on three young men in particular: Shamont, Charles, and Zay. Particularly given that you didn’t know you would be following them when the filming first started, were any of them at all resistant to how embedded you became in their lives? It’s a very intimate thing you’re doing here. 

BL: For Charles and Zay, there wasn’t much resistance. Charles we started following early on because he was so charismatic. You see early on when they do that morality exercise that he makes some really good points and he kind of pushes back in a way that’s totally logical. It was so funny when I did my initial interview with him. We had all of these people being interviewed in this one room because we were just cycling through each of these young men, explaining to them that this isn’t going to be the last interview we’re doing and that we’re not going to be talking about guns and drugs and gangs. We just wanted to get to know them. 

After I interviewed Charles, he was talking to his friend, and he didn’t know that I was still listening in on the mic. He says to his friend, “He didn’t ask me about the block. He didn’t ask me about guns. He didn’t ask me about any of that.” So he was surprised I think, and that relationship was built with a lot of trust early on. 

Zay came later. Zay honestly didn’t really stand out until he had gotten shot and then he came back and all of a sudden had a very resistant nature to the work that was being done. I think it was four or five months in when I did my first interview with him and I was really taken aback by how mature he was, the way he talked about PTSD, the way that he described his trajectory coming from a boy, growing into a young man, and sort of getting caught up in this world. “Jumping off the porch” is the metaphor that he used. This is a guy who was 19, 20 years old.

Something that comes up in a conversation early on with Zay and Billy is the idea of forgiveness and how, in order to break this cycle, these guys have to not only forgive others but forgive themselves, which Zay clearly struggles with. 

JL: That scene is probably one of the most profound scenes. Something that Bing and I often latch onto is that the idea of forgiveness isn’t just something that speaks to communities. While it impacts them tremendously there’s also a universality to it that all of us can walk away having learned something about when it comes to what holding on to that anger does to us. This idea of it eating away more at yourself than at the person that you’re holding it against. 

I know that for myself I walked away having grown from seeing that, and from watching and hearing Billy’s story and from having to say that he’s forgiven the person who’s killed his son, that he would accept him with open arms if he were to walk in the room. I think all of us were shook by that, in a good way.  

BL: One term that we learned while developing this was called “moral injury”. It’s one thing to forgive somebody who’s done something bad to you, but it’s another to recognize that you have also hurt somebody else. If you don’t feel moral injury, you feel a sense of woundedness within yourself. You can call it guilt, shame, whatever, but that’s also going to eat away at you. So I think that’s the other half of the equation of forgiveness that was so striking to us in that scene. 

How important was tapping into that universality when making this film? We see so many statistics about gun violence and the toll that it’s taking on these communities but for privileged folks outside of those communities there can be a distance there where you’re not seeing each of those numbers as real people. Here, we see these individual people and how they are impacted by this crisis of gun violence in their everyday lives. 

JL: We pretty much go into every film that we make with that sort of lens. We’re constantly trying to look at the human condition and explore that, and I think through that you can see all these other different elements and plant yourself in other worlds that you wouldn’t necessarily go to. 

There’s a scene early on where you’re with Shamont and he starts sweeping the street, and it’s such a sweet, endearing look at a side of his personality you might not get to see if you’re just doing a talking head. 

JL: Yeah, it’s a gift. We show up at this place and initially we didn’t know who we would be following. We knew we wanted to be with the program, and obviously we know Marshall is there, but we don’t know who we’re going to be following over the course of the film. A lot of it is exploration. With Shamont, it was literally a few days beforehand we were talking about people and he was somebody that stuck out to both of us in terms of the things he had been saying, so we went ahead and put a mic on him and I just followed him for a day. I spent the whole day laughing a lot and feeling probably the same thing you were feeling watching that stuff. It was clear that he was a character we should be following. 

Throughout the film we see these young men talk about how they’re constantly living their lives in a state of fear, always on their guard. What does it mean for them to have programs like these where they can not only have a safe space for a while, but also see other people in their world who are going through the same things they are? 

BL: A lot of it just has to do with mental health. It’s really stressful to live like that and just at a statistical level that produces all sorts of health problems later down the line. That’s just not good for you. Emotionally you see how it plays out with Shamont and that he just keeps holding on to the traumatic experience of losing his brother, to the point where he doesn’t even think he needs help. He doesn’t think that he deserves a space for that, but he does. Everybody deserves that. 

Related to that, there is another sequence in the film when you all go on a trip to Washington, D.C., and you can really see these guys open up and those shields come down for them a bit. What did you observe in their behavior and their headspace when they were able to get out of the environment they grew up in? 

JL: I think they were all looking forward to that, and they knew it was going to happen, and it sort of progressed bit by bit as we were getting on the bus and leaving. Then along the way we’d stop at a convenience store and you could tell that things seemed a little different and weird, because you’re not still in this environment you’ve been in where there’s always somewhat of a threat. It felt like a vacation in a way, even from the filmmaking aspect that we had been doing before, because everybody’s energy had changed. Everybody had opened up and was having a good time. 

The simplest things became so much more full of possibility, just walking on the street and meeting people. We met a whole bunch of people, which was hard to get all of the releases I needed everybody to sign, but everyone was connecting and feeling good. There was no longer that threat of possibly running into someone who might want to do them harm or where they’d have to put their guard up. 

Did being able to get out of Chicago and see a different part of the country, especially a place like Howard University, open them up more to the idea that their futures don’t have to necessarily be the thing they’ve always been told it had to be? 

JL: Yeah, I mean, in addition to that there was an awful lot of attractive women there. These guys were just constantly turning their heads. I referenced to Marshall when we were going there that in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, at one point he mentions going there and it being Mecca. It sort of felt that way while we were there, where it was just this world of possibilities, but also just a world of life and fun. 

I think a lot of people get to have college on their radar and are sort of growing up thinking about that, and some of these guys had already gone to little colleges and had come back, but for the other group of them it wasn’t even something that was considered possible. So being there really opened up that door for them to realize, “Oh wow, yeah I want to do this.” 

During a scene at City Hall in Chicago where Marshall is speaking with Shamont, he’s talking about how it’s up to them to create their own narrative because the structures that are in place aren’t going to break this cycle for them. Does it feel a bit like these programs, as it’s put later on, are “putting a band-aid on a bullet wound”? 

BL: Yeah, it doesn’t even have to be a total burn-down-everything revolution. In the film we show the sheer disparity when it comes to funding. Think about the billions of dollars that are spent punishing crime, and think about the struggle it is to do just a little bit of work to prevent crime from happening in the first place. There you have it. We all pay taxes. We all essentially fund public services that mostly go towards responding to and punishing crime through police and criminal justice. This is hopefully a look at what it means to start preventing it from the ground floor, and to have a more holistic solution.  

JL: Yeah, just to take you back a second there was this guy Arne Duncan, who was the founder of Chicago CRED and used to work as Obama’s Secretary of Education. He came back after serving and he said, “What would it take for you guys to put down the guns?” A lot of them answered “a job”. A job isn’t the only solution, but in a big way it is how a lot of these guys entered into the program. They didn’t want to be doing these other things. There was just no opportunity elsewhere. There was nothing out there for them, so for a lot of them simply offering them a job was a way to get them in. 

Now, people will see the film, who are in those communities, and can see that there’s a program out there that’s offering them something that will pay them and teach them a trade. At the same time they can also talk about all of the things that they’ve experienced. I think when we start embracing those things as a society and start looking at the good in that, it will change the way that we view, not just the communities, but the way in which we’re treating most of these men from the communities. 

I’d love to end by asking you as filmmakers what would you hope that a film like this will contribute to facilitating more substantial change moving forward? 

BL: I think we have a moral responsibility to help those that are less fortunate than us, those that are more vulnerable than us. A lot of it comes down to the gross disparity that’s happening in Western countries. The haves have more and the have-nots have less, and this is one example of that. I think what we need is a cultural and policy shift toward being more socially responsible for our fellow man. 

Bing, Josh, it was great getting to speak with you, and best of luck with Tribeca. I think that people are really going to respond to this when they see it. 

JL: Thank you. 

BL: Yeah, thanks so much Mitchell. 

JL: Also I’ll just add that Bing just turned me on to Letterboxd while we were mixing the film, and I love it. So I’m a huge fan of yours as well. 

BL: There’s some funny takes on there. I like it for the takes. Some people just have the best, funniest reviews. 

Header image from ‘All These Sons’ (2021).