With the new Glashütte Documentary Award in the Forum category, this years Berlinale has many political documentaries to back up the claim that it remains a socially invested festival. From the sixteen competing films, two are based in North America, taking the audience into the pre-Trump world of American life. While El mar la mar shows the deadly part of the desert between Mexico and the USA, where people try to make their way to America in hostile conditions, Jeremy S. Levine an Landon Van Soest’s For Ahkeem is a film about growing up in a poor, black community in St. Louis, Missouri.
For Ahkeem follows Daje Shelton, a young seventeen-year-old girl who is struggling to find her way in a social environment enriched by a feeling of cultural failure and the constant struggle that accompanies the process of dreaming for a better life. At the beginning of the film Daje makes a statement: “People been labelling me a bad kid all my life. You don’t have to really do nothing, people just expect it. So you start to expect it yourself.”
By claiming this, Daje sets the tone for the documentary, making the audience aware that her story is unique but also part of a bigger picture of what being young and left behind means. The film begins at the moment Daje gets expelled from school and sent to a court-supervised high school, which is her last opportunity to graduate and get her degree. It’s painful to witness fight -or-flight survival mode Daje can’t seem to escape, however by following her in a conscientious, intimate way, the documentary makes an important point about the cultural trauma of what it means to grow up in a world where it is very likely that you will be shot before you reach adulthood.
It is hard to watch this movie, which was obviously filmed before Donald Trump became president, without thinking about the election and the absurd and ironic fact that a white woman like Betsy Devos is now in charge of the young black people we can see in the movie. In contrast to the new clueless billionaire Minister of Education For Ahkeem shows the real people, the teachers and social workers, who dedicate their life every day to the kids who are struggling, always hoping and yearning to make a difference.
By showing their side of the story, the filmmakers give another voice to people who are working at the forefront of the big political mistakes that influence the lives of so many people on a smaller, individual scale. We see this in the actions of the black judge who sends Daje to a new school, in a desperate attempt to give her life direction and meaning and to lift her and the other students up in a society where the American dream is still awfully white.
Over the course of the film we see Daje falling in love with Antonio, a troubled but kind and loving boy from school, and making life choices which are always related to the dream of building a better future. What is striking about For Ahkeem is that the film has a deep kindness for the subjects it follows and never judges them. Even when Daje falls pregnant, the filmmakers give her the space to contextualise this experience herself without interfering in it, making this a very empowering documentary and also increasingly relevant – during filming the unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a policeman in nearby Ferguson; For Ahkeem managing to perfectly encapsulate the zeitgeist of what it means to be young and black in an white and fearful America.
One of the biggest flaws of the film however is that it doesn’t come with subtitles. This is a real shame because it detracts from the smaller scenes in which you find yourself desperately trying to understand what the subjects are saying, but instead are left with the feeling that you missed out on some important conversational subtext. Sadly this fact, which could have easily been resolved, never allows the viewer to fully become part of Dajes’ life.
However, For Ahkeem is is still a good movie which shows that in Donald Trump’s America, problems are acknowledged without seeing human beings as autonomous beings with hopes and dreams. Giving people like Daje a stage to show what it means to grow up in a life where you have the certainty that a lot of your friends won’t make it to adulthood is frightening to witness. If we agree that the purpose of a documentary is to allow you to metaphorically walk in another persons shoes For Ahkeem excels, even if the shoes have some holes in them.