“17 Blocks”: Davy Rothbart’s camera captured the life of an African-American family for 20 years

17 Blocks by Davy Rothbart plunges for two decades into the life of a black American family, emblematic of a sacrificed fringe of society plagued by violence. An exceptional documentary which will be released in theaters in France on June 9, 2021.

The film opens on a basketball court. It was here that journalist and director Davy Rothbart met 15-year-old Smurf and his nine-year-old brother Emmanuel in 1999. The journalist becomes a friend of the family, and begins to film the life of Smurf and Emmanuel, that of their sister Denice, 12, and of their mother Cheryl, addicted to drugs, who tries to raise alone her three children in a house in this ultra violent neighborhood in Southeast Washington DC, located only 17 “blocks” from the Capitol.

The journalist decides rather quickly to entrust his portable camcorder in the evening and during the weekends to Emmanuel, who films in his own way the daily life of his family, and also the life of the neighborhood. “Intelligent, funny and insatiable curiosity”, Emmanuel becomes “like a little brother” for Davy Rothbart.

“We were walking around the neighborhood, filming and discussing life” tells the journalist, who also starts filming and interviewing Emmanuel, Smurf, Cheryl and Denice on a regular basis, both the mother and the children indulging in confidences in front of the camera of the one they gradually consider a member of the family. Davy Rothbart drew on thousands of hours of rushes shot over two decades to build his film.

This long-term installation, but not only, gives this documentary an exceptional character. The duration installs us in a hypnotizing proximity with the Sanford family. We are first struck by the raw images, Emmanuel’s childish gaze.

Images that move, that capture a disorderly life, in a house upside down. Images that show the decay of the home, the overwhelmed mother victim of her addictions, the big brother who drops out, falls into delinquency, and a stepfather who tries in vain to help. Images that show the violence of the street. Images that make you dizzy and want to cry.

In contrast, we are also struck by the light emanating from Emmanuel. His consistency, his intelligence, his maturity. An angel in the middle of hell. The child grows up and stays on course as Cheryl sinks, Smurf gets high, Denice tries to survive. Emmanuel has become a handsome young man. As he had said as a child in front of Davy Rothbart’s camera, he chose life and the path of study, and he succeeded. At twenty, he has a girlfriend and the future in front of him when a dramatic event suddenly cuts off his flight.

This tragedy, which we will not reveal, finishes off this family already completely dislocated, but will also allow, beyond the grief, to get the family out of the abyss of violence and drugs, of this spiral of failure whose reasons we understand when Cheryl, at the very end, ends up letting go of her secret …

Beyond its documentary value, which tells us a lot about the dysfunctions and violence of American society, Davy Rothbart’s film has the force of a Greek tragedy, a dramaturgy worthy of the most convincing and moving fiction, with characters of overwhelming power and depth.

“The story of the Sanfords is, to me, not only a cry of alarm but also a powerful and inspiring story of love, loss, hardship, courage, resilience and redemption. More than anything, 17 Blocks is a love story – a family uniting behind a heartbreaking mourning to understand the bond that unites them “, says the director, who with the Sanfords created an organization, Washington To Washington, to allow children from underprivileged neighborhoods to visit parks and forests across the country. “These outings cannot heal all the traumas of these children but allow them to broaden their horizons”, emphasizes Davy Rothbart.

Movie poster "17 Blocks" by Davy Rothbart, 2020 (Film 17 Blocks)

Gender: Documentary
Director: Davy Rothbart, in collaboration with the Sanford-Durant family: Cheryl, Smurf, Denice, Emmanuel, Justin
Country: United States
Duration: 1h35
Exit : June 9, 2021
Distributor: Sophie Dulac Distribution
Synopsis: In 1999, 19-year-old Emmanuel Sanford-Durant and his family began filming their daily life in America’s most dangerous neighborhood, just 17 blocks from the Capitol. They haven’t stopped filming since. Produced in a unique collaboration with director and journalist Davy Rothbart over a span of two decades, “17 Blocks” sheds light on a nation’s current crisis through a deeply personal, raw and moving family saga.

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