Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Interview: Behind the Scenes of “Raised Up West Side” at the 2022 Sarasota Film Festival

An Interview with Producer and Director Brett A. Schwartz

Interview: Behind the Scenes of “Raised Up West Side” at the 2022 Sarasota Film Festival

Documentary feature film "Raised Up West Side," produced and directed by Brett A. Schwartz, features social activists, entrepreneurs, and ex-offenders from Chicago's West Side - neighborhoods where nearly seventy percent of men between the ages of eighteen and fifty-four have been incarcerated. The film seeks to highlight the "fierce tenacity" displayed by those advocating for change and fighting to change the narrative, revealing the deep-seated segregation, food insecurity, and mass incarceration that continues to shape predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Schwartz, a native Chicagoan, has been a documentary filmmaker for over two decades. In this interview, we discuss how "Raised Up West Side" was created, his connection to documentary filmmaking, and premiering his latest film at the Sarasota Film Festival.

How would you summarize the process of creating this documentary film?

Well, it's been about a four year journey. I've found that, in terms of this process, a lot of stories, whether you're from a small outlet or a network, sometimes you pop in and tell a story over a period of weeks or even a month or two. The approach that I take is longitudinal. Usually to follow a series of events or explore a journey over a period of time to show change; in this case, hoping for redemption. That's the approach that I take: to patiently sit, wait in the wings and try to observe changes over a long period of time.

Interview: Behind the Scenes of “Raised Up West Side” at the 2022 Sarasota Film Festival

While documentary filmmaking can be investigative, and a form of advocacy, it is also very personal. What's your relationship with this artistic medium?

I come to it from a point of being a lifelong learner. And that's what's cool about it. Like being a journalist, you can read about [a topic] or ask a question, and dedicate years of your life to exploring it. Maybe not become an expert, but you can get really close to that subject. And it's really exciting. The feature film I did before this was about the culinary world. I had no experience in that space at all. I dove in, and I learned so much.

It's cool to see that docs are pretty hot right now. I think what people have learned is there's as much story in documentaries as there is in fictional feature films, if not more. It's just the process that's different. You're almost like an archeologist because you're uncovering [the story]. Like how a scientist that has a hypothesis, you have to anticipate where their story's going, but not let that hypothesis dictate the story because then, that's reality TV. You feel a different pressure in documentary- that you don't know where the story's going to go and you really have to embrace that. And that's one of the things that's really exciting to me: not knowing where the story's gonna go, but having the responsibility to anticipate it so that there's going to be story that comes out of the edit.

Tell me about your goals for the film.

This project goes into some pretty sensitive issues, namely an attempt to uncover some of the symptoms of gun violence, poverty, and systemic racism in Chicago. And, you know, having been telling stories about Chicago for about 20 years, I felt like I'm trying to tell the story as a Chicagoan, but also as an American. I felt like a responsibility to do that in some way. But there are different ways to do it. And I think the obvious way is, you know, the way we see procedurals that, on television, get really into the weeds in terms of the criminal justice space and things like that. What I wanted to do was to fundamentally different, I wanted to have a mainstream audience build empathy for the people profiled in the film that are dealing with a lot of these issues, whether it is gang violence or gun violence, or extreme poverty.

In Chicago, we're just assaulted by statistics by data, every day. It makes you numb, whether you live in these areas or not. You forget, these are people. You forget there are stories behind these people. And that's what my goal was. Somebody who may not necessarily think they care so much about these issues, for whatever reason, they'll sit back and be like, "wow, you know, a couple of those guys in that story, they were pretty amazing, they surprised me." Because what we see in these neighborhoods is that so many young men, young black men in particular, carry labels like "convicted felon" of "gang member."

There's very little recourse for them, very few other options. The film isn't trying to defend these bad decisions that kids make, but it is to recognize that, regardless of where you grow up or whether you're black, white, brown, teenage boys, you know, don't always make the best decisions. And depending on your background, that might carry a lot more weight for you. So, I was also exploring finding avenues for a mainstream audience to have empathy for these people and to go beyond the headlines. Second chances are important, even if people did some things that might disturb you. That was the goal. It was really twofold: to shine a light on these issues and get beyond the headlines while creating empathy for the subjects of the film, and also to showcase that there are a lot of situations where second chance opportunities are really warranted as a path forward for a lot of people in certain neighborhoods on Chicago's west side.

What were some of your biggest obstacles throughout the process of creating the film?

Navigating [these issues] in a way that is respectful and understanding the privilege that I have in order to come through and then go home. A lot of people that deal with that anxiety don't have that privilege. How do you navigate that? Then, obviously, there's the pandemic. A lot of storytellers in the fictional space and the documentary space are asking themselves, "What do you do? It's been two years, do people care anymore? Do they want to flee from that and see something else?" In, in my case, it drove the storyline, with the uptick in crime in Chicago (as it did in many big cities). So it was organic, but I didn't want it to be foregrounded too much. Also, this is a film that deals with race and racism and, you know, I'm a white person from outside of these neighborhoods. And what does that mean? How do I build trust, rapport? How do I do the best job I can to build relationships to enable participants to have their story told? These are issues that, for me, were really, really important and are still important now, even as the film gets out there into the world.

Interview: Behind the Scenes of “Raised Up West Side” at the 2022 Sarasota Film Festival

What was your experience like bringing this project to the 2022 Sarasota Film Festival?

I had a great time in Sarasota, it was just a great place to premiere. I loved showing the film and the municipal auditorium, I think that says so much about the festival and says so much about the community, about the reinvestment of that space. I think a lot of other cities would've torn that down, maybe put up a condo tower there or something like that. I've spent a lot of time in Florida. I've spent a lot of time on the Gulf coast, but Sarasota's a very special creative and cultural community. It was really exciting to be on the ground and to launch our project there.

We were really excited to have the world premiere at the SFF. We're doing this circuit right now and one of the cool things is the audience's energy being back in person - and we saw that in Sarasota. The virtual option's amazing, too. There's really great potential for more people to see the film and get buzz that way. That's really what it's about. This is a movie that we want people to see, because our goal is to build empathy for a lot of the participants in the film. We're hoping by the end of the year, or early next year, to sell it. It's just a matter of where, where does it go? But you know, if you believe in your stories and in being a filmmaker, you're going to fight to get it out there. And I know there's gonna be an audience and that this is gonna be available for that audience. It's just a matter of where and what the those outlets will be.

The Sarasota Film Festival took place April 1-11, but you can learn more about the 2022 lineup, watch trailers to the films, and buy passes for next year's festival at https://cloud.broadwayworld.com/rec/ticketclick.cfm?fromlink=2176658®id=330&articlelink=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.sarasotafilmfestival.com%2F?utm_source=BWW2022&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=article&utm_content=bottombuybutton1.


Join Team BroadwayWorld

Are you an avid theatre goer in Sarasota? We're looking for people like you to share your thoughts and insights with our readers. Team BroadwayWorld members get access to shows to review, conduct interviews with artists, and the opportunity to meet and network with fellow theatre lovers and arts workers.

Interested? Learn more here.




Related Articles View More Sarasota Stories


From This Author - Nora Long