The streets of Ferguson, Missouri resemble a warzone. After 18-year old Michael Brown was shot 6 times by a police officer on August 9, protests have continued to dominate the community in Ferguson, as people seek justice against police brutality and a perceived injustice. Police are using tear gas, sonic cannons and rubber bullets against not just protesters, but journalists as well. Amnesty International are on the ground for the first time in US history as relations between police and protesters threaten to spiral into all out civil war.
Am I Next? is a delicately still film that follows 14 year-old Shane Flowers as he moves through the protests with his friends, creating memorials to Michael Brown. Beautifully soundtracked, it documents Shane's journey through the streets from evening to nightfall, as a community campaigns for change.
We spoke to Jeremy Levine and Nicholas Weissman, the filmmakers behind Am I Next? to gather their thoughts from the team's time spent in Ferguson. Read the interview and watch the film below. Thanks to TIME and Transient Pictures for giving us the opportunity to publish.
Dazed: What proportion of protesters in Ferguson were under 18? What really struck you about the teenagers that you came into contact with there?
Jeremy Levine: On the days we've been out there, it's been amazing to see people of all ages out on the streets.
Nicholas Weissman: The range in age was pretty widespread and I think many teenagers were slightly confused on how best to react. They were rightfully angry about what happened but weren't totally sure how best to voice that opinion. This was partially because of a lack in leadership. Many of then failed to connect with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton simply because their heyday was before the teens' time.
What was the atmosphere like on the streets? How tense did it get and did you feel scared?
Jeremy Levine: During the day, the atmosphere is a bit solemn, a bit optimistic, perhaps at times bordering on festive. I've heard a few people say the day we filmed this video felt like a parade. I think there's a palpable excitement that this might be a boiling point where people are coming together and fighting back against the injustices suffered by African-Americans at the hands of police and the criminal justice system as a whole. As the sun sets, and the police roll in with their armored vehicles, you can feel the tensions rise. It becomes a different scene. But it should be noted that even at night, the vast majority of protesters are peaceful and community organizers appear to be working hard to keep it that way.
Nicholas Weissman: The fear was entirely about how the police would react. There was never a concern of danger from the protesters. Once journalists began being arrested and curfews were put in place, it became a much more cautious situation. We were all very aware of what the police were going to do next as they announced over a loudspeaker, heightening tensions more.
Were you at all affected by the tear gas / rubber bullets? Did you see people hurt by the police?
Jeremy Levine: We've all gotten a bit of a taste of the tear gas and we've seen some arrests. I guess we're going after the story with a slightly different angle. As documentary filmmakers, we try to tell the stories of individual people and, in this case, how they are experiencing historic events like this one. There are plenty of reporters out there getting shots of the tear gas, we're just going out and trying to find unique POVs.
Nicholas Weissman: Second what Jeremy said. I did encounter some of the tear gas the night of the curfew. The protest was shut down two hours early, around 10:00, so I witnessed a number of families and small children coughing and running from the gas. I couldn't make it ten feet from my car at that point without stopping to clear my throat.
What could the Ferguson police be doing better in the aftermath of Mike Brown's death?
Jeremy Levine: Just about everything. The response has really been the second tragedy in this story, as it has mostly served to terrify and antagonize people. If Mike Brown's death is the result of irresponsibly harsh police tactics, it seems like the police have doubled down on the strategy. When you are staring down at hundreds of police officers in riot gear and gas masks, with armored vehicles behind them, it really feels like you are in a war zone. I'm glad that the people are now also talking about the militarization of local police forces in this country, as it's something that urgently needs to be addressed.
Nicholas Weissman: Jeremy addressed the police issue, but I wanted to bring up another point. We currently have the first African-American president in office during his second term. I think it's his responsibility to address this issue and its handling head on, without any form of sugar coating. President Obama should be in St Louis speaking as the leader he was elected to be. I strongly believe that then, the public would know their cries are being heard.
How did you find Shane? He's a compelling, politically aware, smart kid.
Jeremy Levine: We've been working on a longer documentary in St. Louis following youth as they navigate the criminal justice and education systems in the city and so we knew that this story is really a youth story, which is not something we've seen much in the news. So I knew we wanted to find a teenager to tell the story but I think it's more accurate that Shane found us. As we walked in to the QuikTrip, a group of boys started yelling at us. I went over to talk to them and then we started recording. All of the boys were kind of yelling to the camera at once, it wasn't too useful at first, but Shane quickly jumped out to us as someone special. So we put a mic on him and asked him to show us the protest through his eyes.
Nicholas Weissman: We set out to separate ourselves from the riot coverage that was being reported all over the news and we knew that the story was even more valid and undercovered during the daylight hours. We figured that we could tie many perspectives together through the eyes of a local teen. We found out later that he grew up behind the now destroyed QuickTrip station.
Am I Next? was filmed as part of a larger documentary called School of Last Resort. More information on that here.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot
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