Name a politically-charged issue, and the Sanford family has endured it all. Yet somehow, the charming family managed to emerge stronger and even more stoic than before in Davy Rothbart’s 20-years-in-the-making documentary, ‘17 Blocks’, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
17 Blocks was given its title in reference to the distance between the U.S. Capital and the rough Washington D.C. neighborhood the Sanfords resided in. Although the distance is not far, the two are practically parallel universes.
The old, raw footage gives audiences direct insight into the tight-knit family dealing with the harsh realities of their impoverished, drug-using and violent neighborhood. The sweetness of the family paints a familiar portrait of the struggle many African-American families living in an urban disaster-zone face, and the cycle many find themselves in that only a few are able to stray away from.
In addition to the emotional documentary, Director Davy Rothbart started a hiking adventure to bring underprivileged youth on a week-long camping trip and embrace the radiant optimism of nature. The annual hike called Washington II Washington has been one of his greatest joys that came out of his time with the Sanford family and their story, on top of 17 Blocks. If you’re interested in learning more or would like to get involved, check it out here.
We had a chance to chat with Rothbart at the world premiere of 17 Blocks at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Here’s what he had to say:
The Knockturnal: The Sanford’s story is beyond inspiring. Can you tell me a little bit about how you first got involved with the Sanford family and how this documentary and all the footage came to be?
Davy Rothbart: I met Smurf on a basketball court in 1999- Smurf and Emmanuel both. My brother was living in DC at the time, and I was crashing on his couch because I was just out of college and trying to figure it out. I love playing basketball, and I would always play at the same park. I just hit it off with Smurf, and Emmanuel just always lurked around the court, kind of hoping to play, but as you saw, he was just a little kid. I would talk to him in between games, and he was really funny. He had such a spirit, creative and one time I asked him what he was into, and he was like “I really like movies.” Well, at the time I had an idea for a short film for him to able to star in it, and I was just learning how to use a camera myself, and I went down and talked to his mom, Cheryl, and she was like “yeah that sounds cool.” But after just a week of just filming with Emmanuel, I realized him and his family was what was really interesting to me, and I just enjoyed hanging out with them.
Even though he was acting for the first meeting only, his questions were all about how the camera works and wanting to hold it and wanting to use it, and I thought that was cool, so I just encouraged him. And before long, I was leaving my camera there overnight and filming whatever he wanted to film. And eventually his brother and sister picked it up, and they started doing that too. For months we would meet up and I would film them, they would film me. The camera would get passed around and we got really close. We became a double family. They were so welcoming and made me feel like I had a home. Cheryl likes to joke that they adopted me, and it really felt like that. We had no plan to make a movie, but we just continued doing that for years and years.
By the time Emmanuel graduated high school and was getting engaged and was starting to train as a firefighter, I came back and was like “this is such a great end to the story.” We shot a bunch over that summer, and then it was a few months later on New Years Eve that got a call and it was from Denice. And she was telling me about what happened like an hour before. So I was obviously shattered, and the next day, I got on a plane and came to DC just to help in any way that I could. And when I got there, Cheryl was just like “thank God you’re here, but where’s the camera?” And I was just like “what do you mean?” And she said “so many kids in this neighborhood die in this kind of way, but none of them have been documented as thoroughly. People need to walk in our shoes for whatever comes next.” She was one day fresh in her grief, but she had the strength and the wisdom to understand the impact that her family’s story could have. And I just got the camera and started filming.
And then we never really stopped. Justin, his cousin little Smurf, and all the kids, when they got to be eight, nine, or ten years old, that’s when I realized it came full-circle. Justin is such a bright, funny, curious kid, but he’s growing up in the same neighborhood. His fate hangs in the balance too, like what will his future be?
The entire film was really collaborative; the whole family was involved and they would always ask the bigger questions. What are people going to walk away from?
The Knockturnal: That’s a perfect segway to my next question of what do you hope audience walk away from 17 Blocks with? And how was that emotional journey for you?
Davy Rothbart: That’s a great question, for me, it’s what will Justin’s future be? You fall in love with Justin just watching the movie; I certainly have just hanging out with him. And by extension, for all kids growing up in neighborhoods like this across the country?
I was still working on the film up until a few days before it went up. It’s been a long time coming, so it feels like a sprint to the starting line almost. So I never really had time to reflect on it until the movie was playing, I was looking around like “Oh my God, this is so weird and wonderful.” I’ve loved this family for so long and now I’m introducing them to the world in a way and just the journey, I was emotional the whole time. All of them have gone through real hardship, but I feel like in this really inspiring way, they’ve found ways to overcome. There’s so much resilience in them. I was crying throughout the movie, and some of it was at the really tragic moments, but some of it was at the really redemptive and uplifting moments. Like thank God Smurf found a way to turn his life around and really be there for his kids. And I was sitting next to Cheryl and we were holding and squeezing hands.
The Knocturnal: Smurf and Cheryl and Denice have been so open in the film with their various struggles, is that something they’re open about with their kids as they raise them into the world?
Davy Rothbart: Yeah. I talked with Smurf and Denice, because Justin had seen the film, but I didn’t know if they wanted their younger kids to watch the film and there was stuff in their about them that they may not have known, and what they reminded me of was they talk to their kids about this all the time, and there’s little in there that they might not be aware of, and so they wanted to share it with them. They’re very transparent with their kids, and ever since they were babies, they’ve been exposed to the issues that surround them. But it’s balanced with that they are really great parents. I think it’s really remarkable.
It’s hard to get past these things. If you’ve grown up in such a challenging environment, not everyone can turn things around. And people slip back, but I hope it makes people less judgemental of those that have struggled to do so. There’s talk of showing this film to court judges that see cases like this a lot, and so it might give people a chance. Hopefully, those judges will look at it and give people a second chance. Not everyone has to go to prison in order to get better.
The Knockturnal: It was interesting to see Cheryl undergo therapy, because her therapist, who is a black man, noted that it’s not something that is seemed as an option or at all normalized in the black community. How are you hoping Cheryl’s story inspires others as well to seek assistance?
Davy Rothbart: When you go through significant trauma, of course, you need counseling and therapy. And there’s a lack of understanding of how vital that could be to your overall well being, and even if you do recognize that, often the services aren’t there. So hopefully seeing this family go through everything could inspire others to go out and seek that help or make that help available for people in that community.