Since 2001, Chicago has racked up 2.5 times more murders then the American death toll in the war zone of Afghanistan—so opens Chi Raq, Will Robson-Scott's new documentary on one of the most dangerous cities in America. Due to its soaring death rate, Chicago is now referred to as "Chiraq" because of its resemblance to the war-stricken killing fields of Iraq. In his intimate, unflinching street-level portrait of life in South and West Chicago, Robson-Scott allows the local residents - gangsters, grieving mothers, and young hustlers alike - to exhibit their numerous bullet wounds, guns, and memories, as well as examining the intrinsic role of rap. Chi Raq reminds us, there's no need to turn to TV for proof of violence and social marginalization, when you can look outside your front door.
Why Chicago, and not Detroit or LA, for example?
I was pretty unaware of Chicago's issues until I was given a job to photograph the South side with legendary rappers L.E.P bogus boys at the end of 2012. I've shot in Detroit and LA and both have their fair share of issues, but I felt a sense of urgency with Chicago. The new hope is rap: there's a buzz within the city and a few people have got big record deals. It felt like there were a lot of eyes on Chicago for its positives and negatives.
In your opinion, were those parts of Chicago as "lawless" as described by the locals?
Statistically, Chicago has had 2.5 more killings then Afghanistan since 2001 and a few hundred off Iraq, so to me that sounds similar to a war zone. The sad thing with this epidemic of violence is I don’t think it's a Chicago issue, it's an American issue.
It was merely touched upon in your film, but is the local rap scene integral to the gang violence in Chicago?
It's an age-old argument. Do playing violent computer games make you violent? Does watching violent movies make you violent? A lot of these rappers are from the same streets that this violence is happening in, so many of them probably grew up being affected in one way or another by the violence. Rap is not integral to the gang violence but there is definitely a dialogue between what's going on in the streets of Chicago and the music coming out of it.
What is the solution to the culture of violence?
I could not start to give a solution: the violence is decades and generations deep. But the issues are the same in any community. You need good education, jobs, affordable housing, fair policing, healthy food, after school activities. The list goes on. Once that starts to happen the violence might be subdued.
If you could have made the film longer, what else would you have included?
I wish I could have made a longer piece. Honestly I was very anxious about approaching this subject and doing it any justice. Yes, I am interested in the policy makers and police but I had limited time and wanted to get street level views from people who had been affected by the issues in Chicago. For the people I was shooting, the policy makers felt so far away.
Did you see any similar parallels to the marginalization of ethnic minorities in UK cities? To the 2011 London riots?
I think the issues of marginalization in all cities are very similar. There is a huge gap between rich and poor, and the speed at which cities are becoming gentrified is pushing out the native population. The difference with, say East London and parts of Brooklyn, and the South and West side of Chicago, is that there is a new influx of people wanting to live and invest in Stratford or Bushwick. But this just isn't the case with Chicago.
To celebrate the release of Chi Raq, Protein invites you to the official, invite-only film premiere and photo exhibition tonight at 18 Hewett Street in London. Doors open at 7pm, with the film screening at 7.45pm followed by an intimate Q&A with Will Robson-Scott, as well the chance to buy a limited edition zine chronicling the entire project.
Follow Christine Jun on Twitter here @ChristineCocoJ