“This issue—it happened to me. And I hope sharing my life story will help other people be strong and share their stories too,” explained teen filmmaker and gunshot survivor India Harris at the Pulitzer Center/Free Spirit Media summer screening as she discussed Hear Her Voice, her all-girl production team’s documentary about female victims of Chicago gun violence.
Free Spirit Media is a media and education nonprofit in Chicago, Illinois. For the past nine years, the Pulitzer Center has partnered with the organization to support youth production crews through a summer documentary filmmaking experience. The partnership is made possible with support from Afterschool Matters, the Julian Grace Foundation, and Art for Justice.
“I am continually delighted by the bonds built between the Pulitzer journalists and the Free Spirit Media participants,” says Free Spirit Media founder Jeff McCarter, a strong advocate for the transformation of society through media who strives to create equity within the industry. “The stories this summer were powerful and relevant both locally and globally.”
Hear Her Voice was one of four provocative, student-produced, issues-driven documentaries that debuted at this year’s August 9th screening. The event celebrated seven weeks of intensive production, filming and editing completed by Free Spirit students and supported by Pulitzer Center journalists Andre Lambertson, Jen Marlowe, Evey Wilson, and Lorraine Ustaris and Free Spirit Media instructors Kim Le Mezo, Brandon Johnson, Tiara Harris, Danielshé Rodgers and Ricardo Segura, Jr.
The program began in June with a few days of story-mapping and exploration, including an afternoon of activities inspired by the Pulitzer Center and National Geographic’s Out of Eden Walk education initiative (visit this page for curricular resources). Journalists and instructors introduced students to the practice of slow journalism as teams searched for stories within the North Lawndale neighborhood surrounding Free Spirit Media’s headquarters. The experience was a first for the program.
“This year’s walk actually got students in touch with the community and the community issues they’d want to project on a global scale,” said Free Spirit Media instructor Tiara Harris, who is an alum of the organization’s youth programming.
Moved by accounts they heard across the neighborhood, students produced documentaries that studied a range of issues: gender discrimination, gun violence, police and community relations, incarceration, racial identity, education, Chicago youth programming, graffiti, and art and culture wars.
Many students found purpose and catharsis through the filming and editing process. Just days before the screening, Chicago suffered a weekend of extreme violence during which 66 people were shot and 12 died.
“The shootings pushed us to finish our documentary,” said Malachi Glenn-Johnson, whose group produced Invisible Until Suspicious, a film about community and police relations in Chicago.
Still, 14-year-old Zuri Spencer, winner of this year’s MVP Award, feels that the media and her peers at Free Spirit Media have a responsibility to cover other aspects of their city.
“At the moment, the only reputation Chicago has to offer is gun violence,” said Zuri. “We have a lot more to offer than gun violence.”
The documentary Spencer produced, Raising a Better Chicago, and the final film from the program, Graffiti, both consider how education, community and art can powerfully combat the problems and pressures Chicagoans face in the city’s toughest neighborhoods.
As a series, the four student documentaries produced this summer set a standard for balance, for reporting conflict, solution, and everything in between in the media’s coverage of local communities engaged in the ongoing fight for change in Chicago and in cities like it across the globe.
Tiara Harris has high hopes for this year’s films. “If these documentaries get out, I feel like it’ll really impact the community we are in North Lawndale and hopefully [that impact] reaches across Chicago,” she said.
Watch the 2018 Pulitzer Center and Free Spirit Media student documentaries below.
Hear Her Voice: Hidden Victims of Gun Violence is a creative and powerful documentary that will change the way people look at gun violence victims. It’s focused on women who have experienced gun violence. We picked this topic because it is a huge problem that should be addressed but isn't touched on most of the time by the media. Most people in Chicago are unaware of just how much women are affected by gun violence and how many of those same women are victims of gun violence.
Credits: Maya T. (producer), Jaliyah A. (reporter), Gina N. (cinematographer), India H. (editor)
Raising A Better Chicago is a short documentary about youth organizations and communities working together to provide for the youth, because they aren't getting the help they need from the government.
Credits: Zuri S. (producer/reporter), Marcus B. (cinematographer), Valeria R. (editor)
Invisible Until Suspicious is a documentary about how Chicago citizens view police and how the police view them. The documentary expresses each viewpoint, what these victims have to live through, their struggles, and their insecurities towards police officers. It also portrays the lives of Chicago police, their struggles of serving citizens, and the insecurities they have towards violent people.
Credits: Daniel H. (producer), Matthias H. (reporter), Mylan E. (cinematographer), Malachi Glenn J. (editor)
Graffiti: An Overlooked Art Style is a look into the world of graffiti. It can be found throughout the world, but how much do we know about the artists and the art? This documentary goes into the history, the meaning, and even the issues that your everyday spectator may not think about.
Credits: Elijah P. (producer), Daronte G. (reporter), Jazz Michael G. (cinematographer), Rashaun W. (editor)