Following its run at film festivals in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane last year, and at a time when the world is at a critical juncture in its response to the Black Lives Matter movement, award-winning Australian artist and filmmaker George Gittoes’ critically acclaimed documentary White Light will air on ABC and iview on Tuesday, 14 July at 8.30pm.
White Light is an intimate portrait of the community of Englewood in Chicago’s segregated South Side, an area that has earned the nickname “Chi-Raq” from some residents who liken the area to the war zones in Iraq due to its extremely high gun violence and murder rates. White Light goes to the source of why these civilian deaths are happening, highlighting ways the community is working to bring peace, and end the cycle of revenge which is perpetuated with every new killing.
Gittoes, who has spent over 40 years documenting war zones around the world, travelled to the United States after speaking with a US soldier, Yanos Hagos, who told Gittoes his hometown in Chicago was far more dangerous than fighting in Iraq. Gittoes says,
“I found this to be horribly true. With rising gun violence in the USA, I decided to go to the place in South Side, Chicago that’s been dubbed Chi-Raq to show how little progress has been made since 1968 when first I travelled to the US after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King and began to understand the depth of racism in that country.”
“Our intention is for White Light to be used as a tool by anti-gun violence groups to open discussions on how to bring peaceful and positive change. This is a film that must be seen by Australians too. The worldwide protest movement born in the wake of the murder of Minneapolis man George Floyd earlier this year has brought our own country’s history with Indigenous Australians into review.”
At the epicentre of the violence in Englewood is “May Block”, a neighbourhood that found itself in the spotlight of primetime news when a promising young model, Kaylyn Pryor, who had just won the Mario Tricoci Make Me a Model Competition, was shot and killed while visiting her grandparents. White Light follows the teenagers who belong to the May Block’s Black Stone Brothers led by Solja, who was paralysed and lost his leg after being shot in the local corner store. Respected elder, Steve “Smiley” Armour reveals to Gittoes that the Black Stone Brothers feel trapped in an endless cycle of violence with their rivals that they don’t know how to end. The Brothers express frustration that while the local police arrest and intimidate members of the community for minor offences or drug offences, investigations into murders in the area rarely lead to a conviction. Gittoes captures on camera a frightening and tense moment between the filmmakers and the Brothers when they are surrounded by police while filming a freestyle, street rap session.
At the heart of the documentary and central to the lives of the teens of Englewood is rap music. Every corner has its rap poets, whose lyrics are an outlet to express their frustrations with few opportunities to succeed in their segregated and underfunded communities. During their time in Chicago, Gittoes and his producing partner, wife and musician Hellen Rose, opened their apartment to the May Block community’s young rappers as a safe space for them to come to write, collaborate and record music. Together the filmmakers and teenagers created the soundtrack for White Light.
In 2015, Gittoes was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize, an honour also bestowed on the Black Lives Matter Global Network in 2017. White Light strongly supports the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting a community that has been neglected and ignored for too long. Gittoes and Rose plan to return to Chicago in October to resume filming the Southside Community through the Presidential election period in November.