Michael and Jeff Zimbalist are award-winning documentary makers who were approached by AT&T AUDIENCE as well as Vince Vaughn, Peter Billingsley, and Victoria Vaughn to create a documentary focused on a crime-ridden city in America. The goal of the outcome was to create an unbiased piece showing two vital perspectives: the police force of the city as well as the residents who deal with the violence in some way on a day-to-day basis.
Ultimately, East St. Louis was selected because, in 2017, it had the highest homicide rate in the city’s history at 35 total which basically breaks down to one for every 771 residents. As explained in the documentary, this number is over five times higher than Chicago, over 38 times higher than New York City, over twice as high as El Salvador which makes it higher than any country in the world.
Recently, TheRichest had the pleasure of chatting with Jeff and Michael Zimbalist for an exclusive interview. The brothers were candid with us about their passion for this project, named "Give Us This Day", and it's clear that they both care very deeply for not just the issue at hand; the crime in the city but the six highlighted individuals who they became close to during filming.
TheRichest: Michael and Jeff, you directed, produced and wrote Give Us This Day. How did this project and your interest in capturing life in East St. Louis come about?
Michael Zimbalist: So it was a couple of years ago, Vince Vaughn, Peter Billingsley, and Victoria Vaughn at Wild West teamed up with AT&T AUDIENCE and reached out to us with interest in doing a cinéma-vérité documentary that was going to follow police officers and residents and at that time, it was just general high-crime areas. We weren’t sure what community it was going to be yet. What we did know is that we wanted to go beyond the often oversimplified portrayals from mainstream media and really embrace the complexity apparent to relationships between law enforcement and residents who are, in our experience, are both often afraid, and feel that they’re maybe being stereotyped based on the actions of a few bad apples, as it were, so the mission out of the gates was to humanize the two groups by simply filming individuals on both sides of the proverbial train tracks. We started in a number of different areas.
Jeff Zimbalist: Yeah, it was about a six-month period where we were traveling to, filming in, and looking for stories and building trust in a number of urban areas with the most violent, highest crime rates in the country including Chicago, the North Side of Minneapolis, L.A., Muskegon Heights, and ultimately, we decided to have the entire film take place in East St. Louis, not just because it has had the highest homicide rate per capita in the last few years, but also—and I think even more so—because we felt that the access was to the most genuine and that the subjects that we found in East St. Louis were the most surprising and complex and dimensional. When we first started filming in East St. Louis, we started with a larger pool of potential subjects, both on the police side, doing ride alongs and in meetings and in their lives in and on the resident side.
TR: Why is it important for people to know about the crime that plagues East St. Louis residents and its police force?
MZ: I think one of the motivating factors for the mayor and others is that they saw this film as a vehicle to which they could call attention to some of the challenges in their city. As Officer Sharp says in the film, it seems as though East St. Louis has been forgotten by some time by policymakers. So, it was a good opportunity for them, in their own voices, to have a vehicle with which to hopefully generate some more interest and dialogue, and even more hopefully, policy changes and resources that can start to help the community.
TR: Was there ever a point in the filmmaking process in which you or members of the crew feared for your personal safety?
MZ: There were, and it was certainly one of the biggest—if not the biggest—challenges of this film was the safety of filming in a city like East St. Louis that has the highest murder rate. And I think we were able to take the safety precautions necessary for a professional production but at the same time, there were risks that we and the crew felt were necessary to take in order to capture the story in a way that did it justice. We were fortunate to have a very dedicated and rational crew that has experience in their own lives… Michael Anderson, having been to prison for murder in the past and being released on good behavior and having a history… he was able to bring a very key skill set to the field production where it was really, moment-by-moment, assessing whether the safety issue was getting out of hand...there were a number of occasions where we did decide to stop filming for the security of everybody involved.
TR: Before filming the documentary, did you know what your story would be?
JZ: We embraced as much of a fly-on-the-wall, cinéma-vérité approach as possible. When we were trying to listen to the environment and have it lead us towards a selection of stories and personal narratives that fit together well and balanced each other out. We started with a number of others and narrowed it down to these ones partly because there were changes going on in their lives. There were real emotional turning points for these six characters that allowed us to watch as they made big moral, economic, and social decisions based on their own experiences. And that was our goal — not to make a smear piece or a puff piece, you know, to be the outsiders who come in and analyze and have an agenda and a strong opinion, but rather, to be serious, patient journalists who allow the stories to develop over time. We’re also really grateful that we had a network and producers who allowed us to tell such a nuanced story and didn’t push it more in the direction of simplifying or generalizing.
*WARNING* SPOILER ALERT
MZ: And as far as expectations going in, because of the final observation style Jeff spoke of, it’s hard to have expectations really. If there were expectations, they were often turned on their head. We mainly went in with questions. For example, would James Samuel be able to support this child by making money legally or illegally? And we never anticipated that his child wouldn’t actually be born. Would Chief Hubbard succeed in lowering the murder rate? We didn’t foresee that he was going to retire from law enforcement at the end of the year. Was Deshuan’s brother, Lemario going to succeed in influencing Deshaun to distrust the cops that Deshaun so revered? And we were actually surprised that it was Chief Hubbard who sat Deshaun down and told him, ‘Look, you shouldn’t want to be a cop.’ And then, of course, Dortavus, after he had been shot in the head and survived, would this push him further into the gang and street life? We didn’t have any idea that one of his close friends would be shot and murdered and that ultimately would be the catalyst to push Dortavus to go to college and pursue his dreams of being a baseball player.
TR: How did residents who did not know about the documentary initially respond to learning about it, especially those who were on camera?
JZ: It’s a small community, actually, and word got out that we were going to be on ride alongs and following the subjects and people saw us in the housing projects and it wasn’t long before people had a general awareness that they would probably encounter cameras. It was probably helpful that people were less surprised. That being said, there’s also the rumor mill about who are these people, what is the story they’re telling, whose side are they on… 'I see them with the cops one minute and I see them with the residents the next minute.' There was a lot of, as Mike said, reassuring the main subjects, but also reassuring the community. We got access to the school system, we got access to the hospitals, we got access to the church for the funeral and we were in a lot of the main institutions of East St. Louis. All of those were conversations. We had to first, be very clear that our intention was to tell a balanced story that didn’t take one side or the other and then to reassure people that we were staying consistent with that. It was a whole process and hopefully, by the end, the community at large understood that we didn’t have an agenda to push one group over the other but to create a portrait of a city that other people wouldn’t know about, would have access to. I think that’s something that both groups wanted.
*WARNING* SPOILER ALERT
TR: What did you find to be the most unexpected moment while producing/directing?
MZ: For me, it was probably the murder of Marty Man. In that group of Dortavus’ crew, Marty was shot and killed, but there was some other youth in that group who were told that they were being targeted by a rival group who wanted to murder them so these youth sort of went underground as it were and off the radar, in hiding. To be filming in the community with Marty Man just before he was murdered and to see that Dortavus is surrounded by a group that are being shot and killed and targeted and going off the grid, it really underscores just how challenging that environment is and how big of a decision it is for someone like Dortavus to take another path.
JZ: I would add to that I was surprised that there were some very positive, optimistic up turns in the lives of some of our characters. I know there were some down turns as well. It is a very sad environment with an enormous amount of challenges and not enough answers. But to see James and Dortavus and Deshaun and to watch these characters end up in this place that, secretly, you hope for, you root for, was really heartwarming, that we found hope in a place that seems so hopeless.
TR: At any time, did any of the subjects of East St. Louis residents object to being on camera due to privacy concerns or their involvement with illegal activity?
MZ: That was something that was important from a production standpoint, first and foremost. It was not our intention to get anyone in trouble in the course of making the film. It was about humanizing people from different walks of life. So those were parameters that we spent a long time getting clarity on before we began the process of filming not just for production, but those we were filming so that everyone remained safe.
TR: Were there any legal precautions that you had to take to protect yourself and your crew from filming certain scenes that pertain to criminal activity?
MZ: Yes, absolutely and the truth is that you need to go through legal precautions and parameters on any production. It just happens to get more and more complex when you’re doing a documentary on activity that you would see in an American war zone so there’s definitely quite a bit of attention paid to that.
JZ: Yeah and a lot of constant re-evaluating of where our moral thresholds were and making sure that we were taking everybody’s feelings into account. We did have parameters and security protocol, but there was also enough room for dialogue so that we all could continue to explore what felt comfortable and what felt like too much.
TR: The footage and the crime statistics were taken in 2017 and the documentary is now about to be released. Is one year a normal turnaround time for post-production?
JZ: We went into it with the hope that the narratives themselves would let us know when they reached a bit of a resolution. Some of the personal stories got to a place where there was more of an arc earlier and others took longer. AT&T AUDIENCE and our producers were really patient and flexible with us in trying to figure out when the right time to end the production was. Ultimately, cinéma-vérité films can take much, much longer than this and it’s really a testament to the team in how quickly we were able to earn trust and gain access so that we were able to turn it around this quickly. I wouldn’t say, although Mike, you should weigh in, that the completion of a statistical year was much of a parameter for us. There’s no telling what the statistics will be next year, obviously, but there’s also not that much indication that they’re going to change in east St. Louis so I don’t think that’s much of a factor.
MZ: And we were definitely surprised that, as the year went along, that the numbers were climbing higher than they’d ever been and that was not something that we had anticipated.
TR: Are the subjects of the documentary planning to be a part of any engagements for the release of the film? Do you plan to follow up with them in years to come?
JZ: Our hope is that the film can be used as a vehicle for social impact and outreach and educational workshops and to include the subjects is always the goal. We do keep in touch with our subjects in all of our films and hopefully are able to contribute where possible to their lives and we hope that the film, in this case, will help spur some conversation, some dialogue and maybe some movement, not just in East St. Louis but in similarly situated urban areas.
TR: What is the most important message/take-away from this documentary that you want to send to your viewers?
JZ & MZ: Our intention was neither to make a puff piece nor a smear piece, but rather to intimately capture the reality of the daily challenges of those living, working, and policing in these neighborhoods. We embraced a “fly-on-the-wall” cinéma vérité approach and focused on emotional turning points, rather than cognitive or political turning points, with the hope of providing opportunities for our audience to identify with our subjects on a human level and perhaps, as a result, question our own preconceptions. We are in conversations with some social outreach, educational, and impact organizations with the goal of using the film as a vehicle in the areas where it’s messages are most relevant, to educate and inform, and ultimately to think and act differently in their own communities.
TR: Do you have any upcoming projects that you can share with us?
JZ & MZ: This month, we're very excited to be releasing the first of eight films in REMASTERED, an investigative music docu-series we created, showran and EP'd for Netflix. In November, we are releasing Give Us This Day with Audience. Then in December, we will be releasing Momentum Generation audience award winner at Tribeca FF, Aspen FF, Honolulu Surf FF, and others) with HBO.
TR: Well, we have reached the end of our interview and I want to thank you, Jeff and Michael, so much for your time. It was a treat to talk with both and we at TheRichest can’t wait for this film to reach the masses as it should.
MZ: Appreciate that very much.
JZ: Thank you so much.
The doc will air Thursday, November 8 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AT&T video platforms including DIRECTV Ch. 239, DIRECTV NOW, and WatchTV