Arts & Culture » Calendar

On Film: the downsides of poverty



On September 27, 1994, filmmakers Tod S. Lending and Danny Alpert interviewed Dorothy Jackson at her apartment in the Henry Horner Homes. The pair hoped to use the interview for "No Time to Be a Child," a three-part PBS series about the effects of a violent environment on children. Two hours after they finished the interview, Jackson's 14-year-old grandson Terrell Collins was shot to death by a classmate as he walked home from school.

Terrell, one of hundreds of kids Lending and Alpert had interviewed for the series, was bright, humble, and generous, a straight-A student who had won a scholarship to a Catholic school. The intense pain and profound sense of loss felt by Jackson's family--her daughters and her five remaining grandchildren--formed the centerpiece of Growin' Up Not a Child, the first of the three programs, which aired in May 1995. For the second installment, Breaking Ties, Terrell's cousin Nikki was one of three children the filmmakers followed around to study the effects of poverty. It ran a year later.

As Lending spent time with the family, he decided there was a larger story worth exploring. "I was interested not only in the long-term effect of losing Terrell," he says. "There were other issues embodied in the family: single mothers raising kids, generations of being on welfare, what life was like in public housing."

With the help of a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and some freelance jobs, Lending devoted the next five years of his professional life to recording the family's experiences. The resulting documentary, Legacy, premiered at Sundance in January and receives its first local screening this week at the Chicago International Film Festival. Studded with images of loss and recovery, the movie explores the psychological and emotional impact of violence, including the pathologies that have crippled the Collins family: drug addiction, welfare dependency, the absence of work skills. The movie, separated into five parts, focuses on the interrelated experiences of five members of the family: Dorothy Jackson, her daughters Wanda (Terrell's mother) and Alaissa, Alaissa's daughter Nikki, and Terrell's older brother Jack, who was with him when he was gunned down.

Even though Lending developed a rapport with the family during the making of the series, he met with some resistance when he wanted to delve further into their lives. "Nikki was actually very distant with me during the whole process," he says. "Dorothy was open to the idea of me continuing to follow them, but she was a little leery. She wasn't the most comfortable person in front of the camera. Wanda was totally absent. It was Alaissa, Nikki's mother, that I bonded with." The emotional and professional dynamics of the situation were different from anything he had previously encountered. "This was a totally open-ended, evolving relationship I had with the family."

Lending was always conscious of the line he was treading, caught between the demands of the job and the importance of maintaining his friendship with the Collinses. "Once I was driving with Wanda--she was telling me something very personal. I thought, I should be recording this, filming this, and then I realized that wasn't what she needed. She needed somebody to listen to her, not with a camera, but as a friend."

Interpolated with the footage are Lending's stark, brooding, black-and-white photographic portraits and cityscapes. He's been taking pictures since he was 12, when his father, an illustrator, gave him his first camera, and he studied with influential photo essayists Mary Ellen Mark and Eugene Smith at a three-month workshop after high school. He says his use of photographs in Legacy was intended to enhance the movie's structure and mood. "There were scenes where I had footage but I used the stills. What I liked about them, they don't stop the narrative flow. It provides a resting place for the eyes that I think an audience benefits from. They also provide the chance to compress time and story, and that's something I'm always looking to do."

Nikki's mournful narration adds to the somber tone. Lending originally wrote it for Alaissa, but the editorial consultants at HBO, which had purchased the TV rights to the film, encouraged him to use Nikki instead. "I never thought of Nikki as the central person," Lending says. But he came to realize that Nikki, who graduated from high school during the filming, embodied the movie's theme of moving toward self-discovery. He began to write the narration for her. "When it came to exposition, I thought I needed to step in and tell the story," he says. "When it came to the interpretative material, I relied on the family and their interviews. For instance, in the scene with Alaissa and a welfare worker, you hear in Nikki's voice that she feels the woman is talking down to her mother."

The film's local premiere comes a little over six years after Terrell's murder. It's a significant milestone for the director as well; Lending and his former collaborator, Danny Alpert, dissolved their seven-year professional relationship and their production company, Nomadic Pictures, in April. Alpert, who is listed in the credits as editor and coproducer, calls Lending "the creative force behind the program." The documentary is scheduled to be shown on HBO next spring.

Lending, 40, who lives in Ravenswood with his wife, Afsaneh Rahimian, and their four-year-old daughter, is currently working on a documentary about the inequalities of the death penalty. "With my work, I try as hard as possible not to force myself on the material," he says. "I believe what is said, what is captured, has its own integrity. I don't feel I have all the answers."

Legacy, playing in the Chicago International Film Festival, screens at 9:30 PM Wednesday, October 11, at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, and at 7 PM Thursday, October 12, at the University of Chicago's Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th. Single tickets are $10. For more information, call 312-322-3456 or check out the festival coverage in this section.

--Patrick Z. McGavin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tod Lending/Robert Drea.

Add a comment