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Feature Thu Apr 16 2015

From Chicago to Senegal by Way of the Drum: Interview with Local Filmmaker Mallory Sohmer

By Ana Sekler

GB-DrumbeatJourney-film.jpg

Mallory Sohmer is a freelance documentary filmmaker from Chicago and a Columbia College alumna. She co-directed the new film, Drum Beat Journey, the story of four inner-city youth who travel to Petit Mbao, Senegal, to participate in a drumming workshop. The program used music as a vehicle to capture and connect with the young men in an engaging and original way. But this is not just a film about drumming; it's about stepping into another culture to learn about oneself.

Sohmer's first film, The Living Documents (2009), a call for social justice, told the story of Nicaraguan indigenous rights attorney Maria Luisa Acosta and the circumstances around the murder of her husband Frank Garcia. It aired on the Documentary Channel (now Pivot) and resulted in a hearing with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2013.

Ana Sekler: Drum Beat Journey, what phase are you in with this project?

Mallory Sohmer: We're currently in post-production and have been working on the film for a long time, since 2011. I'm co-directing it with my friend Kate Benzschawel.

How did the project evolve?

Elilta Tewelde is a friend and was a social worker in Chicago. She's done a lot of programs working with youth in various capacities. It was her big vision to create this program that would become Drum Beat Journey. She found the boys and partnered with an organization in Washington, DC, called Rhythm N Dance, led by executive director Kevin McIntosh and musical director Medoune Gueye, who is also a traditional Senegalese griot. Rhythm N Dance works to educate youth through the performing arts, specifically from the African diaspora. They are all passionate about connecting African-American youth to their African heritage. I thought the idea was great because it was a music program exposing inner-city youth to a different culture. So Kate and I started doing film work, ultimately followed them to Senegal and have shot some follow up footage since we returned.

What did the program in Senegal entail?

Papa Dame, that's what we call Medoune Gueye, taught the young men the sabar drum, an instrument native to Senegal. It is played with one hand and a stick. It has a totally unique sound and it's fast and energetic. The young men also went to a wrestling match. Wrestling is huge in Senegal and the sabar drum and dance are part of the ceremony surrounding the event. So not only did they get to learn the drum, but to see in many ways how it is part of the Senegalese culture.

What were some of the challenges of working with teenagers?

It was quite an adventure dealing with four male teens from Chicago who have either never traveled out of the city or out of the Midwest. There was definitely some culture shock. Also, three of the four boys were high-school dropouts so to get back into a classroom schedule was also a big change for them. There was a lot about it that was exciting and challenging, and they were really brave about it.

What does documentary as a genre demand?

Documentary is a very ethically challenging field as you are not just directing talent, but you're with real people who have feelings and there are things they are uncomfortable with. Plus they're going through personal experiences and allowing you in; trust is always huge in documentary. We've been working to make sure that we're being honest about what we are putting out in the film; that it is truly reflective of the experience but also respects the boys' experiences, feelings, and privacy. There are some moments worth sharing and others that are not, it's a tough line to walk, especially with teenagers.

Your last documentary, The Living Documents, was about social justice; does that theme play into Drum Beat Journey as well?

I've always been interested in social justice issues. Initially this documentary was about kids in the inner city having access to programs that can expand their horizons. There are probably reasons on both sides why they are dropouts, but the fact that there's such a high dropout level in Chicago schools was a concern. So for us, it was an opportunity to provide a chance for a different kind of education.

Did you notice any change in the boys after the journey?

Change is not dramatic, it happens over time, especially with experiences like this one. It becomes more powerful in reflection years later. It's not like the boys came home and their whole lives changed. They still came home to their neighborhoods and the realities of that, but they definitely had positive experiences and I think they grew a lot.

When can we expect to see Drum Beat Journey?

We expect to begin submitting to festivals in fall 2015. We will be targeting festivals interested in the African diaspora, social issues, youth education, and of course music. We already have some programmers approaching us about the film, so that's really exciting. You will definitely see it in theaters in Chicago. We're hoping to host screenings at venues such as Siskel Center, Black Cinema House and Facets. Ultimately we'll also be seeking online distribution so that the film has life beyond the festivals.

How did you initially get attracted to filmmaking?

I was never one of those kids that used to shoot home movies. There were a couple of things that led me to filmmaking. In a high-school sociology class, I saw my first Michael Moore film, Roger and Me. He's a little extreme for me today, but he brings documentary to the forefront and I appreciate that. It was a different way of looking at history and news, through the lens of documentary, which is more personal and has more of an opinion than just straight news. Around the same time, my school had a program that I was involved with where we essentially ran a television studio. We'd put on a show every week, edited stories; it was a lot of fun. From there, it just became my life.

Do you have interest in making films in other genres?

Yeah, definitely. I have my client work, which is sometimes documentary style, sometimes comedy, like The After Party, a short film starring Chicago improv legends David Pasquesi and Sue Gillan, which I produced. I never had interest in anything other than documentary when I came into film, but I think over time I've realized that I do appreciate the art of all genres.

Does the city of Chicago play a role in your filmmaking?

Chicago has been growing a lot as far as film production and we have a really great independent, small film community. I especially admire the work of Kartemquin Films; they are a not-for-profit organization that does amazing documentary work with a grassroots feeling. Drum Beat Journey tackles a lot of issues that relate back to Chicago like the high dropout rates in public schools.

Arts and cultural education is integral to young people's understanding of themselves and the world around them. The Drum Beat Journey story shows what a great impact music and cultural awareness can make on our disenfranchised youth.

~*~

More information on Drum Beat Journey can be found on Facebook and at drumbeatjourney.com.

Ana Sekler is a graduate student in New Arts Journalism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She's previously published articles for F Newsmagazine and Newcity. Read more on her blog.

 
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Constance K / April 16, 2015 1:02 PM

Great interview and article! Looking forward to hearing more from both of you!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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