Alumni Spotlight: John Richie and Jonathan Jahnke Produce "Shell Shocked: A Documentary about Growing Up in the Murder Capital of America"
When filmmakers John Richie and Jonathan Jahnke began working with inner-city children of New Orleans in a program for honor-roll students, they faced a shocking discovery. Richie and Jahnke had partnered with the Fountain of Youth Foundation, a leadership program for honor roll students in New Orleans that asked them to contribute their time to an anti-violence program.
"Through that work, we realized that each and every kid that we were encountering had been directly touched by gun violence, whether it was a family member or a friend that had been shot, and oftentimes right in front of them," said Richie.
Studio at Colton was then a project of the Creative Alliance of New Orleans that involved turning old schools into working space for artists, who paid rent by working with the Recovery School District to deliver training-based and educational programs for more than 100 children in New Orleans Public Schools. Richie and Jahnke, who were high school friends from Shreveport and alumni of the University of New Orleans Class of 2003, had formed a feature film company called Scrub Brush Productions. They signed on to teach children how to use video cameras to make their own productions. On hearing the children's stories, the task quickly took on new momentum.
Five-and-a-half years later, "Shell Shocked: A Documentary about Growing Up in the Murder Capital of America" is making waves in the metropolitan area and beyond.
"I quickly got wrapped up in helping them to create content," said Richie. "We started our own documentary program, a 20-month program where we gave kids cameras and taught them how to use them. That was part of the deal. We told them that we were going to make a long documentary about gun violence and how it [affected them]."
The Studio at Colton project stalled, but Richie and Jahnke kept going. The UNO alumni talked to friends and asked about children who may be interested in participating. They talked to the children first. If the kids were interested, Richie and Jahnke talked to their parents. Then they started the program, Richie said.
They worked with children ages 14 to 19 from all across New Orleans, "from New Orleans East and as far over as GertTown," said Richie. "Each kid that we met, we didn't turn a kid down. And no kid said no to the program."
Eight children started the project. The number dwindled down to five. Those five students made it to class with the producers three days a week. Richie and Jahnke obtained five sets of camera equipment worth $1,500 each from the Youth Rescue Initiative, started by James Bernazani, FBI superagent. The children took the cameras to the streets, recording interviews with friends, family, anti-gun violence advocates and city officials.
"We mixed it all together to make a film," said Richie. "It was a film about youth and gun violence, how the environment contributes to gun violence and what can be done to address the problem in a way that's helping kids, rather than making life harder on kids."
The recidivism rate is high, said Richie. Kids go to jail for small crimes and come out with a 25 percent higher chance of committing another crime. Society is "not doing anything to rehabilitate" them, Richie said. "It's harder to get a job if you go to jail," he said. "If you get any kind of conviction, there are 72 laws on the books keeping you from getting a job as an adult."
"Shell Shocked" points out systematic failures in the education system: the education system, availability of guns, racial profiling, broken criminal justice system, lack of viable jobs and a culture of retaliation.
"Let's first of all try to take preventative measures so kids who are in need...don't walk down that path," Richie said. "And if they do, let's not go to the utmost degree to punish them. Let's do something to help them because they still are children."
They took five-and-a-half years to make the film, Richie said. The children worked in the documentary program for two years, "then it took us a while to edit, then we'd have to make more money to finish the film," he said. In May the film premiered at the Prytania Theatre in a formal screening. Since then, the film has rolled at community centers, in theatres, in bars and in churches for general audiences, sometimes garnering audiences of several hundred people.
The film is a documentary, as well as a call to action, said Richie, who believes America's response to gun violence is not proactive, it's reactionary.
"We want to get it out to a national level because we think that people from other cities can benefit from seeing it because it's solution-based," the filmmaker said.
"I'd like to change the perception of African American kids growing up in poverty and I'd like to change our way of looking at violence among kids, rather for it to be reactionary," he said. "For it to be preventative and to build support for youth development programs. For us to look at youth programs as the valued assets they are, rather than the afterthoughts that we treat them as."
Richie and Jahnke are now talking with city officials about working together. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu "had everybody in his office take an hour to watch the film, talk about what they are doing and what could be done about it," he said.
"For better or for worse, children can lack tact and what they say can be very simple and honest," said Richie, who is now working on a summer program for children. "One of the things I hear pretty often is how much people feel that they learned, even when they thought they knew everything, from watching the film. The thing is: The film is not just the perspective of youth, it's the voice of youth. It's them. No matter how much you think you know, the film is eye-opening.