How a Great Documentary Was Made
Milwaukee Film Fest favorite explores the shooting of Dontre Hamilton. How was it made?
Erik Ljung‘s documentary The Blood is at the Doorstep had its Milwaukee premiere before a capacity crowd at the Oriental Theatre on October 6th. The film, which was the centerpiece screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival, follows the aftermath of the tragic killing of Dontre Hamilton at the hands of Milwaukee Police Officer Christopher Manney in 2014.
The Hollywood Reporter labeled the film “an urgent report from the frontlines of an American crisis,” but for Milwaukeeans it’s a look in the mirror. It was my number one film to see at this year’s film festival and it didn’t disappoint. Yesterday, the Milwaukee Film Festival announced the film was the recipient of the Allan H. “Bud” and Suzanne L. Selig Audience Choice Award.
Ljung, a Milwaukee resident, followed members of the grieving Hamilton family in the years that followed the tragic shooting. In telling the story of Dontre and following the’s death and its aftermath, he also was able to get interviews with key players such as police chief Edward A. Flynn and police union president Mike Crivello. In the process of narrowing down hundreds of hours of footage into a little over 90 minutes, Ljung is able to smoothly walk viewers through a tragedy that many of us have already started to forget.
I caught up with Ljung late last week to ask about how he was able to execute his vision, where people can see the film next and what he hopes people take away from the film.
Are you pleased with the film’s reception?
Two of our three screenings were sold out. The reception was incredible, it was a huge honor to finally bring the film back home as the centerpiece film of the festival. I have started films in the past (Sydney HiH) that were never finished, so when I started this project I really wasn’t thinking about the end result. Covering a breaking news, active storyline solo was extremely challenging and I was focused on just trying to keep up with the Hamilton family and gain access to meetings. The furthest thing from my mind was trying to get this film into festivals and find distribution for it. We were extremely anxious bringing this film back home to Milwaukee because the storyline is deeply personal here. When we screened it elsewhere, audiences didn’t know much about the case, but Milwaukee has an intimate knowledge of the Dontre Hamilton story. This weekend was very emotional for everyone involved, and we are honored with the reception it has received and the support from Milwaukee Film.
What struck me watching the film was the access you had so early in the process. How did you connect with the Hamilton family and when did you decide you were making a feature length film?
I connected with the Hamilton family for the first time late in the summer of 2014 during their first public rally at Red Arrow park. Initially I was just covering public demonstrations, but began doing sit down interviews shortly thereafter. It is difficult to recall when this transitioned from collecting footage to trying to make a feature length film. It probably wasn’t until our editor Michael Vollmann came on board in March 2015 and started digging into nearly 400 hours of footage that we had at the time (and ended with more than 500), that we began to seriously consider this as a feature length film.
I noticed the film didn’t include the settlement or any mention of Dontre’s son. How did you make those decisions?
We did not include the settlement because that all happened after we were done filming; that might be something that is addressed in title cards before we send film for distribution. Dontre’s son is a minor, and there were privacy concerns from his family. [Settlement details]
After the Milwaukee Premiere Nate Hamilton gave you a denim jacket similar to the ones the Hamilton family were wearing. While theirs included tributes to Dontre and other victims of police shootings, can you tell me what yours says?
The Hamilton family made jackets specifically for the Milwaukee premiere. I had no idea that was coming, they definitely caught me off guard. Mine reads “The Blood is at the Doorstep directed by Erik Ljung.”
In talking with people in advance of the Milwaukee premiere, several asked how you were able to scale up production and finance the film. Can you walk me through that?
This production was about as independent as it gets. We relied primarily on donated labor, mainly Dan Peters and Michael Vollmann, and donated gear rentals. From a cost stand point you can keep things cheap when you work as a one man band and own your own camera. However there are hard costs that cannot be avoided (we probably spent $15,000 on hard drives alone) and for those expenses we did receive two grants in consecutive years from the Brico Forward Fund and a Mary L. Nohl Fellowship as well as support from Katie Heil and the Lagralane Group. This film would not have been possible without Barry Poltermann’s September Club production company which provided post production and editing services. The majority of the film was financed on my American Express credit card. Myself, and the people who donated money did so because they believed in the importance of the subject matter and were not concerned with financial return. Our costs far exceed any potential return, people do not get into social justice documentary stories for money. The film was primarily supported by our freelance work and working nights and weekends.
The film ends with a note that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has effectively ended the Department of Justice report on the Milwaukee Police Department. What impact do you think that will have on Milwaukee?
The Department of Justice announcement to end the collaborative reform program is a blow to reform measures nationwide, not just Milwaukee. These are vital in communities with strained relationships with local police departments. Chief Flynn acknowledges there are issues that can be improved upon within his department, that’s why they called for a review. I think the community wanted this review and collaborative effort and so did the police department. It is a lose-lose situation. However, there are discussions that the City of Milwaukee and the Police Department may still implement the recommendations, so maybe all is not lost.
The film leaves you with so much to think about. What’s the one thing you hope everyone takes away from it?
It seems that everyone is more politically engaged, yet polarized these days. We hope this film inspires people to take a more active role in their communities in whatever issues they are passionate about. Spreading information via social media is an important way to spread ideas, but it takes work in your communities and voting and spending your dollars wisely to affect change. We also tried to talk to everyone directly involved in the case and present their viewpoints, and we hope there can be more dialogue amongst differing viewpoints rather than preaching to our collective choirs and demonizing those we disagree with. At the end of the day we all want the same thing, safety and security.
The Milwaukee Film Festival has come and gone, where can people see the film next?
The film is still making the rounds at several more festivals around the country. We hope to have additional Milwaukee screenings in the near future, but nothing is planned yet. [Follow the film on social media]
What’s next for you?
I am currently on a plane to London to help shoot another Milwaukee filmmaker’s upcoming documentary project. No active plans for my next film at this point. Just trying to keep a balance between freelance work and giving back to my friends’ projects who donated their time to help me make this film.
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