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17 Blocks

A Washington family deals with pain and tragedy in the shadow of the US Capitol in 17 Blocks

17 BLOCKS (Davy Rothbart, 2019)
Tribeca Film Festival
Regal Cinemas Battery Park 11-1
102 North End Ave.
Saturday, May 4, 12 noon

Davy Rothbart follows a Washington, DC, family trying to break the cycle of drugs, gun violence, and poverty over twenty years in 17 Blocks, a powerful documentary making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Best Editing in a Documentary Film. “The award for best editing goes to a film for its profound treatment of vast amounts of honest, often raw footage. The film is structured in a way that renders some of the most affecting moments with great subtlety. Viewers are transformed over the course of the film, a testament to the choices made in its making,” the jury said in its official announcement. Written, produced, and directed by Rothbart and written and edited by Jennifer Tiexiera, 17 Blocks features footage shot in 1999, 2009, and more recently, much of it taken by members of the Sanford family, including Cheryl Sanford, her sons Emmanuel Durant Jr. and Akil “Smurf” Sanford, and her daughter Denice Sanford-Durant, in addition to Rothbart and cinematographer Zachary Shields. Rothbart became friends with fifteen-year-old Smurf in 1999 and taught nine-year-old Emmanuel how to use a video camera, so the family was comfortable sharing intimate, deeply personal details of their lives over the years.

The Sanfords grew up just seventeen blocks from the US Capitol, but their experiences are all-too-representative of the country’s most vulnerable communities, which are ignored or misunderstood by the government. In 1999, nine-year-old Emmanuel has dreams of a bright future as Smurf starts getting involved with drugs. In 2009, Emmanuel wants to be a firefighter and marry his high school sweetheart, Carmen Payne; Denice is a single mother; and Smurf is living a dangerous life. Tragedy strikes, and two decades later the repercussions are still being felt in a big way. “I believe in hope,” Cheryl, one of the film’s producers, says despite all that happens to them. They don’t blame society as they try to understand and accept their own responsibilities for what has transpired and vow to get on with their lives, but opportunity is limited.

The film is seen primarily through Cheryl’s eyes; another tragedy is how she went from a smart kid going to private school to a drug addict who cannot stop a sad downward spiral. In his director’s statement, Rothbart, who considers himself to be an “adopted” Sanford, notes that after the tragedy, Cheryl came to him and said, “Where is your video camera? So many people are killed by guns in our neighborhood, but none have had their entire lives documented as thoroughly as my family.” It’s a brave decision to open up as much as they do. There are two key moments in the film that will stay with viewers for a long time. At one point, family members visit a shop that specializes in making T-shirts with the images of young people who were murdered on them, which are worn at funerals. And the closing credits begin with a list of all the DC homicide victims since the Sanford tragedy in 2009, with screen after screen showing hundreds of names. 17 Blocks is screening on May 4 at noon at Regal Cinemas Battery Park, with journalist and author Rothbart (This American Life, Medora) on hand to discuss the film and the nonprofit he started, Washington to Washington, an annual hiking adventure for DC kids to show them more of what the world has to offer.

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