In 1999, nine-year-old Emmanuel Sanford-Durant began filming his family’s lives in America’s most dangerous neighbourhood—just 17 blocks behind the US Capitol building. Twenty years of home footage forms the basis of 17 Blocks, an intimate cinematic odyssey into the resilience of family bonds during tragedy. Against a backdrop of guns, drugs, and violence, Emmanuel matures into a promising student alongside his drug-dealer brother Smurf and aspiring-cop sister Denice.
The film emerged from a uniquely close partnership between the director, Davy Rothbart, and the Sanford family. In 1999, Rothbart befriended Emmanuel and Smurf, then 15, while playing basketball near his apartment in Southeast Washington, DC. It was Rothbart himself who taught Emmanuel how to use a small, handheld camera, leaving it with him overnight and on weekends.
“We became a daily part of each other’s lives,” says Rothbart. “We hunkered down together to ride out the Y2K ‘apocalypse’. We spent birthdays and Thanksgivings together. Bright, hilarious and endlessly curious, Emmanuel became a kid brother to me.”
But ten years after Emmanuel began filming, on New Year’s eve in 2009, the tragedy of gun violence struck an immediate member of the Sanford family. Rothbart flew in the next day to support Cheryl, the mother of Emmanuel, Smurf, and Denice, in the midst of his own grief at having lost someone he had watched grow up.
“Cheryl greeted me with a question: where’s your video camera?” Rothbart recalls. “‘So many people are killed by guns in our neighbourhood,’ she told me, ‘But none have had their entire lives documented as thoroughly as my family.’ Somehow, even in the midst of her pain, Cheryl had the wisdom and perspective to understand the value and importance that her family’s story might one day hold.”
17 Blocks captures the effects of neighbourhood gun violence in the staggering personal detail that is only possible when director and subject are so close. It is on one level an urgent cry for action against the number of guns in the city, documenting one family’s heartbreaking experience of a “massacre that was playing out in slow motion in many DC neighbourhoods, and in cities across the country, largely invisible to the masses.”
But Rothbart insists that 17 Blocks is, at its heart, a story of human resilience and the endurance of love. The film never ceases to document the joys of the Sanford family, despite their loss. Twenty years after Emmanuel first picked up the camera, Cheryl’s grandchildren are the same age her children were when they first began filming.
“More than anything, 17 Blocks is a love story,” says Rothbart. “A family soldiering on through ultimate heartbreak to discover the bonds that unite them.”
VICE is co-presenting a screening of “17 Blocks” on Saturday October 19 at Verona Cinema for Antenna Documentary Film Festival running until October 27.