Dozens of people have died while hundreds more have been wounded from the gun violence that has plagued Philadelphia — with most of the victims being people of color.
Filmmaker Nazir Alston along with his father, co-producer Robert Hershey Alston, took an eyewitness approach in raising awareness about the problem via their third documentary, “AWAKEN: A Tale of Inner-City Violence, Crime, and its Impact.” An earlier project by their company, NKG Productions, looked at the sickle cell disease.
The 32-minute film was screened at the Christian Street Y on May 13, and has since been entered into a few film festivals.
“The actual heart and soul of the project came from the young teens and young youth of the YMCA,” Nazir Alston said. “The project is basically about gun violence in South Philadelphia, and Philadelphia as a whole, and how violence has affected these young individuals.”
For the documentary, the father-and-son team thought it was important to involve local youth in the actual production and development. Thus grew the idea of having personal perspectives, as the youth chose to provide a first-person account of the havoc and trauma that gun violence had created in their communities.
“It was kind of hard because the youth were the interviewers and the interviewees as well,” Nazir Alston said.
The first-hand narratives brought home the effects of gun violence. Participants, who ranged in age from 12 to 18, discussed their personal experiences with gun violence. Some talked about how friends or family members were shot and the impact it had down the line — to them personally.
“It was hard again because I actually have a connection to the project myself, because one of the young people who the project kinds of highlights is one of my classmates who I graduated with,” said Nazir Alston, who attended String Theory High School for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.
“That was kind of hard and I was kind of connected to this project.” added the 21-year-old, a self-trained filmmaker who had worked for several celebrities including Dave Chappelle.
Nazir Alston acknowledged that he was unaware that one person discussed in the documentary was a former classmate. That facts did not come to light until a conversation about the project with folks at the YMCA branch at 1724 Christian St.
Although challenging, working with the youth had its benefits.
“It was interesting,” said the junior Alston. “I liked it because when you work with the youth, you get it raw, unfiltered.”
He noted it was his hope that the film would have a “national impact” on youth as well as their parents in dealing with the epidemic of gun crime.
“On a more personal level, I hope it allows parents to look at their kids and pay attention to what they do and be a little more mindful of their children and understand that they are the ones who control the direction of where their children go down the line,” he added.
The filmmaker says blame for the violence among youth cannot be laid at the feet of video games, music, mental health problems or other excuses.
“It’s not that, a lot of these kids don’t have a solid foundation and a solid foundation comes from the home,” said Nazir Alston. “So that’s where I would like a lot of parents to look at themselves.”
Lance Lee, executive director of the Christian Street YMCA in South Philadelphia, describes “AWAKEN” as a realistic look at the situation.
“The documentary addresses violence here in the South Philadelphia community and how its violence has directly affected the Christian Street community,” Lee said.
“Over the past two years, two young men lost their lives to gun violence. They were members, their family members were members and they grew up at the Y,” he said.
“These were good young men and they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lee said that the South Philly Y applied for an Activities grant and were awarded the funds requested,” he added.
Co-producer Robert Hershey Alston discovered that the YMCA, where he is a member, wanted to make a documentary about the issue.
“I went and actually met with the executive director, Lance Lee, and we sat down and talked about the project,” he recalled about the meeting in February.
Robert Alston informed Lee that he had a production company, and together with his son wanted to tackle the project, which the YMCA branch helped with $10,000 in funding.
“He [Lee] took a look at our website, brought the matter to the board members and we kind of got pick to do the project and we started moving on from that point,” Robert Alston said.