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“By the time this broadcast is over, odds are at least two children will be hurt or killed by a bullet.” These words, which could have been sampled from any number of television specials on crime, open Eugene O. Wooden’s Voices Against Violence. But this isn’t just another tired film about crazy black boys killing each other in the streets of what used to be the murder capital of America.
Voices, winner of the “Best of Show” award in the 1995 Rosebud film and video competition, is a 30-minute video resounding with voices we don’t often get to hear. It is the melody of sorrow being drowned out by sirens. It is the choral response to the question “How ya livin’?”
“Like this,” the collective voices seem to say, “just listen.”
Styled like a music video without a pop star, Wooden’s imagistic documentary is a series of poetic “monologues” set against a montage of images, full of quick edits, shifting beats, and disparate musical styles. The project began as a conversation between the director and some of the poets whose work he features. Shot almost entirely in Southeast D.C. with a budget under $4,000, the project took two-and-a-half years to complete.
Twenty-nine-year-old Wooden says he wanted to find a way to combat the violence he sees in the media. He doesn’t think poems or videos will stop dealers from selling crack, but he does believe that art can foster an understanding that 30-second news bites cannot.
“The government and other institutions are bombarding young people with messages, but no one’s hitting the target,” Wooden says.
Wooden has been doing video production for the past 15 years. At his arts-magnet high school in Harrisburg, Pa., his video class produced a weekly show that aired on an ABC affiliate. After graduating in 1988, he moved to D.C. and did a stint managing audiovisual resources at a major corporation before landing a job at PBS.
In 1993, he produced a 30-minute documentary featuring poet Kenneth Carroll that aired on PBS member station Channel 32 and cable access. Wooden realized then that the spoken word could be a powerful tool, but also recognized that younger viewers, with their scientifically proven short attention spans, might not tune in to such a show.
With Voices, says Wooden, “we were able to put on screen images that young people could relate to.” His hope is that the video will “retain a young audience and encourage them to rethink how they view violence and society in general.”
Voices opens with newspaper headlines and evening-news footage before cutting to a poem by Brian Gilmore titled “Black on Black Crime.” The poem tells a story about Bengal tigers locked in a cage by zookeepers who coerce them into killing each other. Following this, rapper TimBuc-T addresses CIA and military involvement in illegal international gun sales and the domestic drug trade in a piece titled “On the Political Tip.” The choice of introductory poems represents the director’s intention not to blame the drug epidemic on the moral insolvency of blacks, but to present drugs and crime as the result of many factors, both personal and political.
The poems become less didactic and more personal toward the end of Voices. And the synthesis between image and text improves in the film’s second half, which focuses on the stories of several individuals. “A Letter…,” written by performance poet DJ Renegade from the point of view of a young woman writing to her dead hustler-boyfriend, presents a complex picture of both the alluring and the grim aspects of street life. Carroll’s “Requiem for Little Sonny” is a skillfully drawn portrait of a teen-ager who gets shot by another teen. The character’s personality comes through in grainy black-and-white images—a flash of a smile, a confident swagger. This fragment received an award nomination in last year’s Rosebud competition.
Wooden is presently working on securing wider distribution for the video. Voices has already been used to teach creative writing in D.C. public schools, and there are plans to develop a study guide to accompany the video. Channel 32 recently aired the piece a second time after receiving a number of enthusiastic calls from viewers.
The filmmaker’s next project is a documentary on the word “nigger,” which he calls “one of the most loaded terms in the world.” The documentary will look at the word’s derivation and history as well as exploring the impact it’s had on African people throughout the diaspora. And with his partner, Regi Allen, Wooden is completing work on a TV pilot that they shot in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I want to tell great stories that will move beyond documentary filmmaking, which I think is a great medium, but unfortunately doesn’t reach the masses the way features do,” Wooden says of his plans.
Voices may not reach a large audience, but it succeeds in giving a dramatic edge to a documentary subject. One of the film’s strengths is that its focus is not on the act of violence, but on its effect. What does it mean when a young life full of potential is cut short? What do mothers and lovers do when they lose their loved ones? Most of Wooden’s images are the faces of those left behind. Voices doesn’t leave the viewer with a sense of why teen-agers get killed or of how crime in the city can be stopped—as if any film could do that. Rather, it emphasizes teh humanity of all those living just enough for the city.
“I walk the streets,” says Carroll in the film’s closing lines, “hoping to hear voices raised against the carnage…listening for visions of change.”
Voices Against Violence screens in a showcase with other Rosebud winners Saturday, April 29, at 1 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.