For Ahkeem, Directors – Landon Van Soest and Jeremy S. Levine

This film is in total contrast to Step. Set in St. Louis it describes the struggles of a young high school student from a poor and underprivileged neighbourhood to overcome incredible obstacles to achieve her goal. The documentary follows her over two years with incredible intimate and emotional scenes. In this case however it is the public school system that comes through. St. Louis has established a school to support kids who for a variety of reasons are not making it in the regular school system. They have been suspended or expelled for a variety of behavioural issues and are placed here for their last chance. The school is however amazingly supportive. Daje is the 17-year-old student who is sent here after being expelled. She understands this is her last chance but circumstances of poverty and racism make it very tough. She is distracted by a boy friend, a pregnancy and birth of her son, Ahkeem, during her senior year. Does she continue or does she drop out to raise her son? In the end, she survives all the ordeals and graduates. The film focusses not only on her amazing story but on the nature of a society that puts many black students in urban America on a school to prison pipeline from which escape is incredibly difficult. One of the great parts of the festival is the Q and A at the end of many films. In this case we had not only the directors but also Daje who gave us more about the story. Sadly her boyfriend and father of Ahkeem did not escape the prison ending and is currently serving 7 years for what amounts to misdemeanours like possession of marijuana, driving while black and not showing respect to the officers who stopped him, and not meeting his parole requirements. Seven years! As for Daje however she starts an ultrasound technician training program this fall. One of the more moving scenes in the film is her visit for an ultrasound and seeing her fetus on the scope and learning it would be a boy. Her career path made so much sense.

This film also raised another issue for me. The two directors are white males. Daje was asked about this in the Q and A and made light of it. She noted that when they arrived at the school to ask for volunteers to be in the film, Daje and the other students were suspicious because, as Daje remarked, most encounters with white males in her neighbourhood and experience involved cops or some other kind of racist oriented trouble. However she liked the guys and was the one to volunteer for the film. She really liked the outcome of the movie and while some of the experience was difficult for lots of reasons she trusted the directors and what they were trying to do. I went to a second film that day and sat behind some people who had also seen For Ahkeem. Their friends asked how they liked it and their only comment was: “Its problematic, a film about a black girl made by a couple of white guys.” I guess they didn’t stay to hear Daje. In these days of political correctness and cultural appropriation I suppose there is some justification for this statement. I however learned a lot and the film is a great critique of our racist society, how we can work to overcome it and how public education properly funded can be part of that solution. Look for this film for an inspiring story.