HYDE PARK — London-born filmmaker Will Robson-Scott wanted to explore the violence that plagues Chicago's South and West sides — so he went directly to the source.
“Chi Raq,” Robson-Scott's new documentary, features interviews with Chicago gang members and others who admit to both committing the violence as well as being victims themselves.
“I didn’t want the film to be about my views, I wanted the subjects who live or have grown up in Chicago to tell their stories and give them a voice,” Robson-Scott said. “Many people have asked if I was scared shooting, but to be honest the people in the West and South [sides] of Chicago were more friendly and accommodating than your average Londoner or New Yorker.”
Robson-Scott is primarily a photographer. "Chi Raq," shot in black and white, is similar in style to his earlier work chronicling the London grime music scene and also graffiti crews across the United Kingdom and Europe.
“I think being English helped, people seemed genuinely surprised I was there and I think they dropped their guard a bit,” Robson-Scott said. “Many peoples’ only reference to English people was Austin Powers or the Geico lizard — they were as interested in me as I was with them.”
The film points out that 4,265 people have been killed in Chicago since 2001, 2½ times the number killed in Afghanistan in that time. It opens with an interview with a gun-toting, joint-smoking apparent gang member as he drives through the streets of the city.
"Chicago was always a violent place, you know what I'm saying?" the man said. "As time goes on, it's just gotten more and more violent because the attitude changed to, now everybody don't give no f---. ... Ain't no leaders out here. Ain't nobody accountable for your actions."
Another man agrees that the lack of leaders led to a "systematic uproar," saying when "they took all the gang chiefs away, they took the structure."
The film doesn’t look for solutions, but instead provides the reasons for the violence from the viewpoint of those closest to it.
“The first thing I remember was being arrested when I was a shorty,” said another unnamed man in the movie who said he sold crack in his teens. “Once I became a part of the system, it f--- me up if you understand what I’m saying because it was in and out after that.”
The film is available online from Protein TV, an urban arts and culture journal based in New York and London, along with photos Robson-Scott shot while in Chicago.
“The reason for the violence are deep rooted in the community, but to be honest this is not strictly a Chicago issue, although it’s very bad in Chicago,” Robson-Scott said. “It’s an American issue.”