Filmmaker Watches Young Men Turn Into Firefighters

Illustration by Molly Roy with photo from Mimi Chakarova.

Not all of the young men in Mimi Chakarova’s documentary, IN THE RED, will make it. But, for those who do, lives once mired in rap sheets, break free.  Chakarova, who won the 2011 Daniel Pearl award for international investigative reporting for her last documentary, The Price of Sex,  has long been Mission Local’s multimedia advisor, generously doing so without charge.

She also makes documentaries and her new film will screen Wednesday, September 23rd,  at Oakland’s Grand Lake Cinema. The doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the showing begins at 7 p.m. You can get tickets here or at the door.  All sales go to benefit future EMT classes at the Fire Academy.

We caught up with Chakarova to talk about the documentary, which was edited by another Mission Local contributor, the very talented,  Claudia Escobar.

ML: Your documentary follows three young men through an intense training program to become EMTs and eventually firefighters. Not all of them make it.  Did the outcome surprise you?

Chakarova: Absolutely. I didn’t start off filming with a clear idea of who would make it and who would not but over time, as I got to know the young men featured in the film, it was clear that some faced bigger obstacles than others. And as the months progressed, you root for everyone to complete the program because you see how much work and discipline it takes each week. Unfortunately, one of the central characters in the film was cut just a few weeks before graduating, so yes, I was very much surprised and saddened. And so was everyone else in the fire academy program.

ML:  Watching the process over five months and their lives for nearly two years, did you see any of the young men change or do you think the change – a will to seriously take their life in another direction – had already happened?

Chakarova: I think the change was already planted in them. Before these young guys applied to the fire academy, many of them had completed BAY EMT, a free training program in Oakland that teaches them how to be EMTs and helps them find jobs in ambulance companies. A lot of these young men were already in the community, helping people and doing their part. Their ultimate goal is to become firefighters but working as an EMT is an important stepping stone.

ML:  People working in social justice will look at this program and ask was there anything special in its approach that other places could mimic – in a sense looking for the dynamic that produces success.  What would you tell them?

Chakarova: I would tell them what a firefighter I interviewed told me. He said, “We could be making cheese instead of teaching them how to be firefighters and we would still have the same impact.” What he meant is that it’s not necessarily about the training, the drills, the sweat and pain. It’s about showing heart. Many of these kids grow up without fathers or mothers or teachers who believe in them. And what the program proves is that it’s possible to reshape someone’s life at 18, at 21 or 23 years old. The whole notion that if you don’t reach kids while they are young is false. Young people need adults they respect and want to imitate. Role models. And the black firefighters who run the program are exactly that. They are living a life of service and showing young people how to do the same regardless of their past juvenile history.

The characters "In the Red" follows. Courtesy of Mimi Chakarova

The characters IN THE RED follows. Courtesy of Mimi Chakarova

IN THE RED

ML:  Can you explain what “in the red” refers to since many of us know the expression as one that is negative and refers to being in financial debt.

Chakarova: It comes from a motto adopted by black firefighters who had a very difficult time joining the fire service because of institutionalized racism and discrimination. The motto is “All I am I owe. I live eternally in the red,” meaning, those who came before me paved the way and I owe it to them to do the same for young people now. And it’s not just firefighting. It goes back to the Civil Rights Movement and all the black people who sacrificed their lives for equal rights and justice. It’s ironic when you think of all that’s happened in the last two years – all the shootings and unfair imprisonment of black men. I read the other day that since 1980, over 260,000 black men have been killed in cities like Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Oakland… And having spent my teenage years in Baltimore and seeing the persistent violence and poverty there, this subject is very close to my heart.

Mimi working in the Mission. Photo by Lydia Chávez

Mimi working in the Mission. Photo by Lydia Chávez

 ML:  What sets the documentary apart from others is the amount of time you spend with each character outside of training. In the end it is their personal lives that seem so much more difficult than the training.  Did you begin to have favorites? To hope that if anyone had to fail, it would not be this one or that one?

Chakarova: I don’t have kids yet but I imagine it would be the same as choosing a favorite if you had three. You can’t. Each one is his own person and you love him separately from the others. I can’t tell you how often they would piss me off. You have to keep in mind that not all of them live in Oakland. I was driving all over the place – from Union City to Richmond to the Mission District. And there were times when I would be five minutes from someone’s house, with all my gear in the back, and get a text of: “My cousin is in town. Can we do this some other time?” I would pull over and shake my head. But then you move on because ultimately they are kids. And giving up on them was not an option.

ML: Did the experience of getting to know individuals very different than you,  make you look at your life any differently?

Chakarova: I guess I don’t look at it that way. I never thought of them as different from me because I know what it’s like to struggle and to be frustrated with your predicament. I grew up in a city that was rough, racist and segregated. Baltimore was violent and unforgiving, and so being in Oakland, filming and getting to know these kids, didn’t feel like such a big shift in reality. I get where they come from. I am a product of the inner city public school system so I get that type of neglect and indifference too. What was most important to me is that they let me in. And that was the biggest challenge – gaining their unconditional trust. It took eight months with one of the main characters in the film. Eight months before he finally let me come to his house. And let me tell you, I felt wonderful that day because I knew what that meant. He finally trusted me.

 ML:  There is a point in the film where one of the characters lends another $10 for gas and the gratefulness is so clear, but as a viewer we think $10 is so little yet it makes such a huge difference. Were there times that you intervened in their lives?

Chakarova: I used to teach in a journalism program and always preached this whole “we must be objective” stuff until I started working on projects that taught me better. You can’t expect for someone to open the door to their house time and time again and then not intervene when the time comes or when they ask for help. I’ve had these kids call me crying because they fought with their girlfriend. Or text me they can’t buy a book they need or don’t know how to find it. One kid needed to get in better shape before the fire academy started. I put him in touch with a physical trainer I know in East Oakland. You do what you can because this is so much bigger than a film or a program. Like I said earlier, giving up on them is not an option. And the more people who care about them, the better.

ML:   I understand you had no financing for the production. How did you manage?

Chakarova: Initially, during the first four months of filming, there was the prospect of funding that soon after fell through. I had to make a choice whether to continue with the film or whether to put everything on hold. But at that point, the fire academy was already in session so I decided to continue filming. I often joke that we talk about low budget projects and films and how damn difficult it is to make anything when the support isn’t there. IN THE RED is a no budget film. I look at it as my community service… my gift to Oakland.

ML: How were you able to afford music by Raphael Saadiq?

Chakarova:  We were able to reach out to Raphael Saadiq because a central character in the film, Lieutenant Sean Gascié, grew up with Raphael in East Oakland and they’ve been best friends ever since. All it took was a call from Sean. Then, he gave me Raphael’s number so I could tell him more about the film and its purpose. The conversation was beautiful because here you have a Grammy award winning singer, songwriter and record producer who has never lost track of where he comes from or the people he grew up with. As a young man,Raphael lost one of his brothers to violence. He told me that one of the songs we use in the film was specifically written for the youth in Oakland who continue to struggle with poverty, violence and neglect. So, his music is very much in the spirit of the film. We all hope he makes it to the screening. He said he’d do his best to be there on the 23rd.

ML:  Many of the filmmakers involved – maybe all of them – are women. Was that a coincidence or a choice?

Chakarova: A choice. I love working with women and so much of my history and prior work is about women. And I take mentoring young women very seriously. So, I wanted my team to be comprised of women because I believe, and no one can change my mind about this, that women approach storytelling differently. And nowadays, I enjoy working on projects where the characters on the canvas are male but the brush and colors are full of our female sensibility. I think it’s a good and healthy balance.

ML:  Your next project?

Chakarova: I am finishing another feature-long documentary called “MEN: A Love Story.” I’ve been working on it for more than three years now – traveling across 25 states in America and interviewing men of all walks of life about love. And yes, my team once again is comprised of women. In fact, some of the same women who were involved with IN THE RED are involved in this new production.

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