Hollywood has a weird relationship with the concept of displaced communities. Despite some nuanced views, the overwhelming majority of films paint a predictable picture: The big company tries to take over the neighborhood, the underdogs make a plan and the thoroughly emasculated figurehead villain is rightfully done away with. Though the execution may change from Pale Rider to Pocahontas, the concept usually remains the same.
Except, that is, in Yesler Terrace.
Developed by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) in the early 1940s as the city’s first publicly subsidized housing development, Yesler Terrace is in the process of becoming a mixed-income neighborhood. In 2013, the sha began a revitalization of the neighborhood, which has and will continue to install new apartment buildings and other facilities in the area. As a part of this development, sha has committed to offer comparable housing to current Yesler residents who are being displaced by the renovations.
In response to SHA’s actions, various forms of media have begun emerging to commemorate the tight-knit community that is currently being broken up. Sarah Kuck and Saman Maydani’s landmark short film, “Even the Walls,” which won the Seattle International Film Festival’s (SIFF) coveted Golden Space Needle award, is an elegy to the old Yesler Terrace told through a collection of interviews from both longtime and newer residents. From an artistic standpoint, the short film is masterfully produced with rhythmic editing, lulling theme music and impeccably photographed portraits of the neighborhood.
But “Even the Walls” transcends its graceful aesthetics with powerful undertones. Over and over again, the audience is shown that it is impossible to move people like objects, that home is so much more than a space.
“All I have of you is a memory,” said Selaay Welderfael, a Yesler resident in the film. “That memory’s also attached to certain places where we grew up in.” More subtly, another scene shows two neighbor children playing with a tablet while considering if and when they will have the chance to be back in the same neighborhood together.
It’s all about the people
Kuck and Maydani first got involved in the project after Maydani made friends in the neighborhood while shooting “Hagereseb,” another short film set in Yesler. “She found that feeling like, ‘oh wow, these people belong to each other and their space,’” said Kuck of her co-director. “And the one thing that everyone wanted to talk about when she was in their space was that Yesler was changing.”
Kuck acknowledges the film has an intimacy and personal perspective that some other documentaries lack. “Allowing people to express themselves in the way that we did for this project was intentional in that it was about them,” said Kuck. “The project isn’t about Yesler, and I think that’s something that people may have scratched their heads about because they’ve heard it’s a film about Yesler. It’s a film that’s set in Yesler, where everyone lives in Yesler, and Yesler is one of the characters, but it’s about these people.”
“Even the Walls,” nevertheless, explores what’s happening in Yesler as a microcosm of issues facing the country at large. “The city as a whole needs to understand that we keep asking the same group of people to move, and to sacrifice,” said Kuck. “This isn’t a Yesler story, this is super common in almost every city in America. The poorest neighborhoods are being asked to sacrifice for the good of the city.”
But Yesler is determined not to go softly into that good night. For the past four years, Claire Garoutte and Asfaha Lemlem have been guiding students in the Yesler Terrace Youth Media Program through the process of making high-quality media over the course of a 12-week program (“Lights, Camera, Political Action,” RC, Aug. 15, 2012). Students generally come from lower-income neighborhoods around Seattle, including one student who moved from Yesler. “Redevelopment still affects me,” Beza Hailu said of her new home in Chinatown, “even if it’s just having to go around the traffic, having construction in Yesler is hard.”
We give them a background
For all the instruction, Lemlem and Garoutte were both clear that the students control the entire creative process. This year, the group has ambitions to produce a feature-length film, inspired by everything from “Even the Walls” to stories on NPR. “Some students said, ‘Let’s look at the present,’ and others said, ‘Let’s see what the future looks like,’ and even others wanted to see what the past looked like,” said Lemlem. “If they are able, they will make it into one long story about the people who live here.”
Small groups have been assigned to each of the film’s three sections: past, present and future. And each group shot a series of interviews with community members and other footage, before bringing it back to the lab for editing. For the future group, this has included going to places such as South Lake Union, which underwent a similar redevelopment not long ago, to see how new communities might adapt and grow with cultural migrations. They can then make an educated guess about what the future might hold for Yesler.
The students are confident about their prowess and for good reason. Some students who have been with the program since its inception are now mentors, and many more are returning for their second or third year. Veterans are able to immediately step into their roles, such as Damain Dodson, who is primarily an editor for the past group. Though he does not step in front of the camera often, Dodson describes his job as “making sure nothing goes wrong.” Similarly, Samson Alem is the past’s self-described “Best Director.” “They all hate me now,” said Alem with a laugh while the rest of the crew prepared for a shot, “but they’re really gonna love me when this is done.”
Given the success of “Even the Walls” and “Hagereseb” at SIFF, this film could go far. Whatever the outcome, all of the students’ work will be shown Aug. 13 from 5:30 – 7 p.m. at the Frye Art Museum.