Five Questions with the team behind THE AREA

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Sociologist, photographer, and now filmmaker, David Schalliol makes his directorial debut with The Area. The film premieres in Chicago during the Black Harvest Film Festival on August 23rd with Schalliol in person for audience Q&A, followed by a two-week run at the Film Center next month (September 14–27).

The Area follows the expansion of Norfolk Southern Railroad and the subsequent displacement of residents in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. We spoke to Schalliol, Deborah Payne (protagonist and co-producer), and Brian Ashby (co-producer and co-editor) about their experiences while working on The Area.

Sierra Jackson: Having previously focused on the relationship between community and urban development across America and abroad in your professional work, what has been your main takeaway in documenting the displacement of people now that you’ve completed the documentary The Area

David Schalliol: One takeaway is that the media and policymakers spend more time on the symptoms of conflicts than their causes.

Thinking about The Area as an example, during testimony in City Hall, an activist noted that the development proposals for “the area” (the targeted property, bounded on the north and south by Garfield Boulevard and on the east and west by Steward Avenue and Wallace Street) identified it as blighted, but the proposals didn’t acknowledge how and why it came to be that way. The official documents didn’t explain what the train company and city set into motion years before.

When the train company began purchasing and demolishing buildings, it took away the heart of the community: its residents. With fewer people around, residents needed additional support to maintain the neighborhood. The train company and city provided inadequate support, so residents were left to try to fix the problems themselves. They had to remove downed limbs, put up extra lights to secure their houses, check for gas leaks in derelict properties, and more. People from outside the neighborhood saw all of these problems and they figured they could do what they wanted there. They dumped trash, they did horrible things in the buildings that were waiting for demolition.

But a neighborhood doesn’t have to be demolished by a train company to have the same experience. This is what people do to many Chicago neighborhoods. This is what many people think about many neighborhoods across the county. Outsiders see them as places no one cares about, places that can be exploited, and they plunder them. Of course, this is what happened at an earlier stage in the area. So we spend so much time discussing genuinely huge problems like violence and dereliction, but we rarely talk about the actions that produce them in the first place.

One of the hopes I have for the film, The Area is that it can provide a nuanced understanding of the processes and deeper consequences of displacement. Because this is a project initiated by one corporation with the support of city government, it makes it easy to understand this process — at least easier to understand than with more diffuse scenarios like gentrification or housing bubbles. It clarifies how international economic dynamics combined with structural disadvantage and racism produce the problems that plague the city. So when I think about my other projects, like documenting the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation or the struggles instigated by closing coal mines in Hauts-de-France, we can see that conflict isn’t just about displacement, it’s about the forces that produce displacement in the first place.

SJ: What was it like to watch the homes in Englewood be knocked down?

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Still from “The Area.” Courtesy of Scrappers Film Group.

Deborah Payne: I had mixed emotions when they first started tearing down houses. At that time, I didn’t know why the buildings were being torn down. I was unaware that it was a part of someone’s strategy. I didn’t know that they had quietly begun to reach out to people. Then when I realized it had to do with the Norfolk Southern expansion, I didn’t know how to think about the people doing the demolitions. I was mad at them. I thought they were employees of the railroad who took pride in knocking the houses down. I thought they didn’t understand what was valuable about the neighborhood. But then I started to think about something different. I started to think about how simple it was to knock down a house and how it became empty ground. And then about the people and the memories and what was missing on the street. Something so simple as losing a house changed so much. It changed the landmarks in the neighborhood. The demolitions even started messing with my landmarks, because I would expect a certain building to be on the corner, but then it would be gone. The empty spaces really affected me. And I didn’t know how to feel when the empty spaces sometimes made it easier for me to walk through the neighborhood.

Then I saw how life still went on, and I thought about the pride we should still have in the community. They were tearing all of this down, and leaving trash, and yet, we still needed to live here. They stigmatized us. The more blighted the neighborhood got, the sadder I got. I couldn’t believe the nerve of these people.

So it was different emotions at different stages, until it got so blighted that I didn’t remember what was on that street, who lived there. I would look at the street and try to remember, “The Norwoods lived here, so and so lived there.” I still do that. In fact, I did it yesterday.

“I didn’t know how to feel when the empty spaces sometimes made it easier for me to walk through the neighborhood.” — Deborah Payne

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Still from “The Area.” Courtesy of Scrappers Film Group.

DS: My feelings changed too. At the beginning, the demolitions were a shock because part of the neighborhood would simply vanish. I’d spent a lot of time documenting demolitions, but the scale and concentration of them was unfathomable. A whole street would disappear. And the longer we worked on the project, the more my reactions weren’t just that shock of change, but also the erasure of memories. Deborah and I would often walk around the neighborhood and see which buildings were going to come down, talk to people who also gathered at the demolition sites, and consider the future and past of the community.

Then as I started to think about how the experience would be represented in the film, I dwelled on both loss and strategy. How could these seemingly endless demolitions be conveyed to the people who would ultimately see the film? Is there a way to show that? It was heartbreaking and daunting.

SJ: How did you first connect with each other?

DS: I got to know [Englewood] through a different project about demolitions in the city. At the time, I was in the neighborhood regularly and had acquaintances, but I didn’t know anybody well. So when I [began] to conceptualize what would become The Area, I wanted to know what residents thought about the idea. Did community members see a value in a documentary film? If so, what would that mean? And what was their take on the train company’s plans, which had only recently been made public? I looked through public records of meetings, browsed not-for-profit organization websites, and even asked the aldermen for the names of community leaders. Time and time again, Deborah’s name came up. I knew we had to meet.

DP: I received a call from David. I was interested in who he was because I was a community-oriented person and I knew people had recommend me to him. When we met each other, we immediately struck a common interest. We got talking, and I started telling him what I did in the community, and he had so many questions. Then he talked about what he was thinking and what that would mean. Through those conversations and the time we spent together, I came to feel comfortable working on the documentary. That comfort helped pushed me to take my own pictures in the neighborhood. And by that point, David had become part of my life, so whatever he was doing, I was going to do. Through it all, it never felt like I was doing a documentary. I was just doing what I was doing.

SJ: One of my favorite scenes of the film depicts a young man practicing martial arts on the streets of Englewood. This moment reminded me that this story is a story about people. Despite systemic operations infringing upon the space and livelihood of people, people will always be individuals of multiplicity. In the editing room, what was your process in the choosing to include this scene?

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Still from “The Area.” Courtesy of Scrappers Film Group.

DS: I’m excited that you picked this moment as one of your favorites, and for the reasons you did. From the beginning, the idea was to make The Area about the neighborhood’s experience, and so the film is built around telling the overarching story through a select group of residents’ experiences and these vignettes.

At the time of filming, I knew the moment you’re describing was special, but mainly because it was a day when everyone was just hanging out and having a good time. Brian, who co-edited the film with Peter Galassi, was an advocate for putting that moment into the film, so it’d be great to hear his take on it.

Brian Ashby: It caught my eye immediately, and I’m glad it caught yours. I was attracted by how his friends chose to set an upside-down bicycle behind him with wheels spinning, and everyone in the group of boys wanted to collaborate on the scenography with David, to frame a tableau or altar of strength. Early cuts of The Area had longer observational sequences, and I wanted to include a minute-long static take of this dude! I had to bow to practical concerns on that, but am really glad we were able to include him. Like Sierra said, he speaks to me about the individual’s determination to improve and make one’s self flawless despite surroundings of decay, and to live a hyperkinetic life in the face of slowly creeping negativity. I hope he will get to enjoy the film soon.

“He [the subject] speaks to me about the individual’s determination to improve…” — Brian Ashby

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Still from “The Area.” Courtesy of Scrappers Film Group.

BA: I hope each person who sees The Area can reflect in their own way on the communities that made and shaped their own lives, and that they can consider the ways American society did or didn’t allow those communities to thrive, or even to exist. I hope those reflections can allow new futures to be more broadly imagined, so that the trends we see playing out in this film can be slowed, reversed, and one day repaired. I still believe in documentary film’s capacity to short-circuit existing debates through empathy, and create new frames of perception.

DS: It’s my hope that The Area connects with audiences that are going through similar struggles as well as those who are seeking to understand them. Through those connections, I hope that the film can be a force for understanding, affirmation, and change.

DP: Hopefully the people who are being taken advantage of or who are trying to solve what is going on around them will be empowered by this film. I hope that they will seek an education, that they will seek out people in their neighborhood, and that they will investigate and act. If they think that someone is doing something wrong, they should try to undo that wrong. After all, if you seek out knowledge, and you learn that you are mistaken about something, you can always say “I’m sorry” for your misunderstanding. And if you learn about what people are doing, and it makes sense to you, you can say “I understand.” But if something is wrong, you need to fight it. You need to connect with the people around you. You need to breathe what they breathe, smell what they smell, taste what they taste. You need to be involved. You need to take a stand.

THE AREA screens August 23, 2018 followed by a two-week run (September 14–27, 2018) at the Gene Siskel Film Center each followed by discussions featuring cast and crew members. Click here for showtimes and tickets.

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