The new documentary “For Ahkeem” follows 17-year-old Daje Shelton after she has been expelled from her public high school in North St. Louis and is sent to the court-supervised Innovative Concept Academy by Judge Jimmie Edwards.
The film is part of the free program “Mean Streets: Viewing the Divided City Through the Lens of Film and Television” at the St. Louis International Film Festival. “Mean Streets” is presented by Washington University Libraries, Washington University’s Sam Fox School’s College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, Cinema St. Louis and the Missouri History Museum.
“Mean Streets” is made possible through the generous funding of the Missouri Humanities Council and is part of “The Divided City” initiative, a joint project of Washington University’s Center for the Humanities and the College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design. “The Divided City” is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“For Ahkeem” screens at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Missouri History Museum. Co-directors Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest, producer Jeff Truesdell, field producer Brad Rayford, and subject Shelton will participate in a Q&A after the film.
We spoke with Truesdell, a writer for People magazine and a St. Louis resident, about the documentary. He wrote about the Innovative Concept Academy and Edwards in 2011 for People. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
How did the film develop from a People magazine story into a documentary?
I was fascinated by the efforts of the St. Louis Circuit Court and St. Louis Public Schools to try to create a second chance opportunity for kids who were being booted out of public schools out of zero-tolerance policies. Those were the kids who lose their way oftentimes on the path toward graduation and fall into what we’ve come to know as the school to prison pipeline.
When I finished the article, I knew that there was a much larger story to be told. I was fortunate to partner with a team of New York-based filmmakers (Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest ) who came to town and agreed with me that this was a story that they wanted to tell.
While we were filming several kids in the school and searching for the right candidate to help us illustrate their experiences, one young lady, Daje Shelton, emerged front and center with a story that we felt was incredibly compelling.
She is so open and eloquent about her life.
She is remarkable. She was not initially one of the students we were following. As we began the process we pulled aside about two dozen kids one at a time off-camera to sit and talk with them about their lives, their dreams and what it was that caused them to be in this alternative high school.
On one of those instances we were at someone’s house on a Friday night. Two girls were sitting in the bedroom braiding hair and as the cameras were rolling, Daje Shelton walked in the room. She plopped down on the bed and then something happened where she revealed that she had been shot. It wasn’t a recent injury; it was just something that had happened to her. And the response of the girls was so casual and normal that I think we all responded with a sense of “Wow, what is going on here?”
Then about six months into the filming process, which had begun in October 2013, things began to happen in her life, choices that she was making, things happening around her that made us think, OK, this is our story. We wanted to follow her and spend time with her, and she became this incredibly relatable protagonist.
During the filming of the movie, Michael Brown was shot and killed. How did you decide to let that be part of the story? The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in late summer of 2014 happened a year into our filming. We were already in place because it was the start of Daje Shelton’s senior year. It struck us instantly as an immediate echo of the way Daje and her peers saw themselves, their potential, their opportunities, their future.
What has been the audience reaction to the film? We have be fortunate to share this film with audiences of court personnel, educators, academics, social justice advocates, and high school students, not just in St. Louis but all around the country. The response is always so supportive. Educators see the film, and they tell us what they see is the number of people it takes to make a difference in the life of each child.
We had an incredible opportunity to share this film with inmates at a male correctional facility. When the lights came up, the room was full of tears because these men recognized themselves in her story. They recognized that there were people in her life that refused to give up on her even when she wanted to give up on herself. Even more than that, they saw themselves as the disembodied voice of her high school boyfriend calling from jail and reaching out to wives, girlfriends, mothers, and grandmothers, and they realized, perhaps for the first time, some of the damage they had done in the lives of others.
For more about “Mean Streets,” visit the What’s New blog.