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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2019

GoCritic! Review: 17 Blocks

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- Shot over a period of 20 years, 17 Blocks is a gripping and emotional documentary offering an inside look into one family’s tragedy

GoCritic! Review: 17 Blocks
Emmanuel Sanford in 17 Blocks

The making of 17 Blocks started almost as a coincidence. The director, Davy Rothbart, befriended members of the Sanford family at a neighbourhood basketball court and gave Emmanuel, the youngest child of the family – then just nine - his first camera. Emmanuel went on to document his family’s everyday life, which would be soon disrupted by a tragedy. Twenty years later, the result is a feature-length documentary, which had its European premiere in Karlovy Vary’s Documentary Competition.

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Living in a tough area situated the eponymous distance from the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., the Sanford family struggles to make a decent living. Emmanuel’s household consists of his mother, single parent Cheryl, and his siblings “Smurf” and Denice. Their living situation is far from ideal, as their ‘hood experiences high levels of gun violence and street crime, which soon begins to set Smurf on the wrong path. Cheryl, who originally came from a well-to-do middle class family and who has personal issues of her own, is incapable of stopping him; this consequently leads a tragic chain of events which has a huge impact on the family.

The film’s greatest strength is that it is told from within, as the family members are the ones behind the camera. This offers an honest and rarely-seen insight into family life, but also provides a fascinating contrast between Emmanuel’s youthful innocence and curiosity and the harshness and cruelty of the adult world. Domestic sequences in which Emmanuel dreams of becoming a firefighter are intercut with instances of violence and drug use. It is a visit into a world, in which people die for nothing, and each day can be a fight for mere survival.

The family members’ changes are equally fascinating, as the two decades profoundly affect each member in different ways. Over the years, the Sanfords manage to move to a better part of the city, but tragedy follows them everywhere. Smurf falls foul of the law and becomes more mixed up with street crime, while Cheryl almost loses her will to live. And as her children now have children of their own, the family finds itself trapped in what feels to them like vicious, inescapable cycle.

The Sanford family’s problems are, of course, not that uncommon in their milieu, so even though 17 Blocks focuses only on their story, it deals with some of the most pressing issues in America. It never comes across as in any way patronising, because it is told through the family’s point of view and its commentary on the problems depicted therefore remains personal. The result is a film about politics, but which is not political in the sense that it would blame the establishment or anyone specifically. Instead, it simply presents facts as they are and not as one party would prefer them to be.

Dealing with grief, sadness, hope and injustices in the world, 17 Blocks is a roller-coaster of emotions. Rothbart’s powerful, and surprisingly positive message, delivered in the most human terms, makes for a thought-provoking experience, one which does the documentary genre justice. At the post-screening Q&A in Karlovy Vary its producer spoke of challenges in obtaining distribution, but this is a sufficiently strong piece of work to warrant widespread exposure.

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