In the past decade, video footage of the District in the 1980s and ’90s has been splashed all over documentaries of every type. If you’ve paid close enough attention, you’ve seen a movie or TV show that chronicles the “Murder Capital” days, showing images of bloody sneakers on the pavement, old MPD squad cars and crying mothers, grieving and clutching babies while patrol-car lights flicker off their skin.
Once you see enough — and even if you remember the scenes from newsreels and real life — you do become desensitized. And in Betsy Cox’s “Southeast 67,” set to premiere at the D.C. Independent Film Festival on Friday night, new, more intimate images of Anacostia can be a bit triggering for those who remember what it was like to come of age during that era. Oddly enough, footage that had been sitting in a basement in Portugal turns out to be an integral part of telling the complex story.
“There really isn’t a lot of footage that exists of Anacostia, especially in the daylight hours from that time,” Director/Producer Betsy Cox said of the footage, some of which includes shots from inside a morgue and clips from an interview inside Marion Barry’s house. It was shot over a four-month period by British filmmaker Peter Forbes. It was part of a typical “disparities in power” story about D.C. that was never made. It took some doing, but Cox tracked down Forbes in England. Forbes made a trip and sent over the 60 hours of tape. “Much of it didn’t have anything to do with Southeast and Anacostia, but so much of it did. But that was a real boon, a real gold mine.”
Aside from the visual vocabulary of the film, the story is about what 67 students from Southeast Washington were able to accomplish with the help of the I Have a Dream Foundation. From 1988 to 1994, a program was dedicated to serve three homerooms from one of the lowest-performing middle schools in the city. But, as will happen, not everything worked out perfectly. The main protagonist of the story is Steve Bumbaugh, then a 24-year-old, who was the program coordinator for this particular class and was directly involved with the kids on an unforgettably personal level.
At first, he was slightly reticent about what making a movie about his former students might mean for them as adults.
“I had some anxiety that telling their stories on film was going to make some of my students vulnerable. I think what Betsy has been able to pull off is telling a story of these kids, these students, with the warts and all, but still having them emerge as these heroic figures, which I always thought they were,” Bumbaugh, now 48, said Thursday. He is the director of Breakthrough Schools D.C., a foundation that “that supports educators and school leaders who are ready to design and launch new, whole-school learning models to better personalize learning for students,” according to its Web site. “I thought they were heroic figures when they were getting themselves to school at 13 years old, under these situations and circumstances I could barely wrap my head around. I think it’s been really empowering for them.”
The kids highlighted in the film run the gamut. Some have drug addict parents. Some are dealing with being homeless. Some get pregnant. Others are simply going through the cycles that make learning impossible in so many urban situations. Seeing these kids open up more than 20 years later as adults in all different walks of life is an intimate experience that expertly humanizes a struggle we all sometimes just associate with the blank phrase of “poverty.”
“I think that it’s a D.C. story, but there are communities like Anacostia all over this country,” Cox explained. “And I think they’re often stereotyped. Also, communities like Anacostia get sort of a big-brush stroke — there’s not a lot of nuance involved. I feel like if you can sit down for short of 70 minutes and immerse yourself in the personal details of someone’s life … it maybe makes you think a little differently. A little more humanly, with a little more compassion.”
The are no super-happy endings, necessarily, in this film. You get a macro look at what life is currently like for a slice of a generation of students that came out of one of the roughest scenarios in America at the time. It was even insightful for those involved, who were somewhat shielded from the plight of their peers at the time. For the “Dreamers,” as they’re known, their myriad stories are just part of what makes the recent history of this city great.
“As a young child, you didn’t know that it was going to continue like this. I just thought once we finished with school, it was going to be over with. I appreciate it. Because the day in crime has changed,” Johnny Sidbury, one of the few Dreamers that graduated from college, said Thursday. He works for the D.C. government and still lives in his old neighborhood. “Some of us did well without going to college, some of us did well going through college. It’s an eye-opener. Especially to some of the kids that I showed [it to], who are growing up in this area, this day and time. Letting them know that what they’re listening to on TV, and what they see in videos … people lived that in real life in the ’90s.”