In this week’s issue of the Washington City Paper, film critic Tricia Olszewski found herself charmed by Louder Than a Bomb, a documentary about a high-school poetry slam competition of the same name. Directors Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs spent two years following the contest, which pits teenagers across Chicago in rhyming showdowns. The film tracks four of the competitors and their poetry teams—yes, these things are coached and practiced—from scribbling thoughts in classrooms to the big showdown. In her review of Louder Than a Bomb, which opens today at the West End Cinema, Olszewski wrote that “their devotion to the spoken word is astounding.” Siskel will be on hand to take audience questions at screenings tonight and tomorrow. We spoke yesterday at the West End Cinema.
WCP: You really feel these kids’ energy. But when I was watching the film, I kept asking myself what the narrative was beyond kids getting ready for this competition.
JS: We wrestled with the four storylines. It became clear to us that the Steinmetz [Academic Centre] story had the most dramatic arc. It was a year of development finding the kids, a year of filming, and two years of editing. But we really could never get rid of the other characters. We realized with the Steinmetz story, the other kids—Nate, Nova, and Adam—are so important to Steinmetz’s identity and what the slam meant to them, you don’t understand what Lamar is talking about at the end without knowing who those kids are. We felt the arc of the competition was strong enough.
WCP: Aside from the Steinmetz kids we saw glimpses of Nova’s family and her brother, who’s developmentally disabled. But Adam’s life seems pretty charmed. I kind of got the feel that he’s a little too pleased with himself.
JS: Gosh. I think he’s probably one of the most humble, genuine, sweetest kids. We refer to him as the most exotic documentary character you’ll ever see because he is a normal, well-adjusted…
WCP: I don’t mean boisterous or obnoxious. But he is an outlier in that he’s not from one of these South Side schools.
JS: I think he says his sense of privilege is probably a bit inflated. He doesn’t come from an affluent North Side family—it is an average, middle-class working family. But he goes to one of the best schools in the city and no, he’s not a South Side kid, he’s a white Jewish kid.
WCP: I think that’s really obvious. The first time you interview him with his parents he’s covering his face in embarrassment. But you say he’s one of the most exotic. Is it because he’s the white Jewish kid in the poetry slam?
JS: I don’t just think he’s exotic in our world, I think he’s exotic in the world of documentaries. There’s this sense that a lot of stories are about—I don’t want to say the wrong thing—how is this being used?
WCP: I’m transcribing it.
JS: You don’t post the audio?
WCP: God, no. Then people would hear all my mumbling.
JS: What I mean is that he’s a normal, well-adjusted kid.
WCP: One of the other feels I got from building toward the Louder Than a Bomb final is that although it’s a competition it’s very friendly. How competitive do these kids get? Is there that edge?
JS: I think so. Nate says that he wants to win. When Adam goes up on stage—I’m still not sure about what you’re saying about him being cocky—he is transformed and he grabs the audience by the throat. He may not want to score 10’s, but he wants to do his best. And Lamar is a total competitor. By the end, with the loss, he learns these important lessons, but it doesn’t make him any less of competitor. So throughout they’re saying this mantra, “The points are not the point, the point is the poetry.” I think that community really feels it. But when those kids go up on stage they want 10s.
WCP: Should Steinmetz have won?
JS: We thought so.
WCP: So did everyone else you talked to.
JS: Who did you think should have won?
WCP: I thought they were the best in that section. If I were judging them—and I saw they sometimes pick their judges from the crowd.
JS: In the preliminary rounds they do but in the semifinals and finals they are teachers, poets, rappers, journalists. Maybe not the perfect judges.
JS: We were devastated when that happened. In making a competition film we thought we were going to have the winner. It wasn’t the most important thing but we wanted to have the best poets possible. But with Steinmetz’s loss we thought, “You’re supposed to have a winner and that was our winner.” In that moment, I remember coming back with Greg and we were both devastated because we were hurting for the kids as much as the film. But I said to him maybe it’s a good thing that we have the loser. Every competition film has the winner, maybe it’ll be interesting to see what happens with that loss. And three days later to have Lamar honestly being able to articulate this stuff that they learned was amazing.
WCP: And Northside came in second. Who won?
JS: The winner was Kuumba Lynx, and it’s not even a school, it’s an organization. Schools compete, but so can others. They compete every year, but the idea of a community group and explaining that just seemed too tough.
WCP: Is it still teenagers in that group?
JS: Yeah. They’re in a couple of scenes but we never even show their name because their not in any of the bouts that we featured.
WCP: I recently saw another documentary that takes place among young people in Chicago, The Interrupters. And it’s about a much different type of youth outreach than this. Off the screen, how much of an impact has the tournament made?
JS: I think it’s made a huge impact in the high schools, not just in the city but the suburbs as well. When we started filming there were 40 teams. I think the film has helped. It was going to grow on its own, but the film has kind of boosted that. Now there are 70 teams and that will probably grow by another 10. But the really exciting thing is that at every film festival we’ve been in has programmed us in the educational part so we play to high school students all over the country and the first question the kids ask is, “How can I do this in my school?” So we are partnering with [Louder Than a Bomb founder] Kevin Coval on an educational DVD that we’re putting out in a few weeks so that teachers can really make the most of using it in the classroom.
WCP: Who’s getting into Louder Than a Bomb? Is it kids into music?
JS: The Steinmetz kids came in as rappers. Adam is probably very much an arty kid. Nate is a rapper. But Nova, I think it was her English lit teacher who said she had a talent for writing and should check this out. For her it opened this door for her to express this stuff that she kept bottled up.
WCP: Was she new to performing? Adam is very theatrical. Lamar seemed kind of shy at first, too.
JS: He was. Nate is definitely out there, and Lamar is a performer too, but I think what you’re picking up on is a reticence in the interviews. Nova was a natural though.
WCP: Going back to the narrative, are there any moments of tension you left out? Doesn’t it ever get heated between these kids?
JS: Yeah. The big conflict with Steinmetz, the reason we have that apology scene—Greg filmed the whole thing, but the problem was that we’re not the A cameramen. He was in the classroom and all the kids were spread out. It was a very nuanced kind of fight but one I think you could feel building over the year. Sloan was getting more and more frustrated with the kids not writing and maybe being disrespectful and that’s what happened. The kids really disrespected him and Coach Hood and said to them, “You’re nothing more than chaperones.” But Greg in tried to cover it all was missing pieces of it so we couldn’t use it. I think because you see enough of that frustration building the apology scene works fine.