In 1999, filmmaker Davy Rothbart met Emmanuel Sanford-Durant and his older brother, Smurf, during a pickup basketball game in Southeast Washington, D.C. Rothbart began filming their lives, and soon the two brothers and other family members started to use the camera themselves. Spanning 20 years and culled from over 1,000 hours of footage, Rothbart’s feature documentary, “17 Blocks,” illuminates a national, ongoing crisis through one family’s riveting saga. The film takes its title from the location of the Sanford family’s home, just 17 blocks behind the U.S. Capitol.
IndieWire has an exclusive first look at the first trailer for the film, which won the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival Award for Best Documentary Editing.
When Rothbart was first introduced to the Sanford family, he was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Southeast Washington, D.C. While playing basketball at a nearby court, he met Smurf, a local drug dealer who was 15 at the time, plus his nine-year-old brother Emmanuel, a promising student, his sister Denice, an aspiring police officer, and his mother Cheryl, who must conquer her own demons for her family to prosper.
“One day, they invited me back to their place for dinner, where I met their mom, Cheryl, and their sister Denice, and I had such a nice time, and they were so generous and welcoming, when they invited me again the next night, I said ‘Yes!’,” said Rothbart. The relationship developed from there. “I was far from home for the first time and at a time in my life when I was really in need of some family. Cheryl likes to say that the Sanfords ‘adopted’ me — and that’s really what it felt like to me.”
Rothbart was a burgeoning filmmaker at the time — a first-time owner of what he describes as a low-grade consumer video prosumer Hi8 camera. Together with the Sanford family, they learned how to use it, capturing amature footage of each other and the neighborhood.
“Sometimes I left the camera at their place overnight, over the weekend, or for longer stretches, and they continued to film without me,” Rothbart said. “There was no grand plan, no clear vision. While we sometimes noodled with little fictional stories, these were essentially just home videos.”
The filmmaker eventually left D.C., but remained close with the Sanfords, returning for holidays like Thanksgiving and randomly filming whenever the moment seemed appropriate. This continued for years until New Year’s Eve 2009, when, like many others in their neighborhood, the Sanfords became victims of fatal gun violence.
“I was there the next day, to help in any way I could, and Cheryl said to me, ‘Where’s the camera?’,” Rothbart said. “I hesitated, but she said, ‘So many friends of mine have lost loved ones to gun violence — but this is different’. She pointed out how thoroughly her family had been documented for so many years by the rest of us, before he was killed. She had the wisdom and foresight, even in that moment, to recognize the value of that footage. And she knew the grief and pain she’d be wading through in the weeks and months to come, since she’d seen friends go through the same thing. ‘We have to keep filming!’, she said. ‘We have to film everything!’ She hoped her family’s story — in all its heartbreak — could personalize the vast toll gun violence was taking in her neighborhood, especially for people living beyond, for whom these deaths were often just a statistic.”
And so they continued to film, for another two decades, until Cheryl’s grandchildren came of age and the story came full circle.
The challenge for Rothbart’s team, including the excellent work of editor Jennifer Tiexiera, was to then shape 1,000+ hours of footage into a cogent story that spanned two decades in the Sanfords’ life, telling an urgent story about the daily challenges they face, directly from their point of view. “They have lived it, breathed it, and filmed it, and as their friend (and honorary family member), I’ve done my best to help the family tell the story they wanted to tell — which is both an elegy for their beloved son, brother, and uncle who was lost before his time, and also a celebration of the possibilities of love, courage, redemption, and resilience,” Rothbart said of the film, which currently holds a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and its potential for impact.
To that end, Rothbart’s team has partnered with organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety and Black Lives Matter D.C. on screenings, and for the film’s national release, presented by MTV Documentary Films. Its national virtual release is set for February 19, 2021, streaming from nearly 100 theaters across the U.S., and viewable on computers, tablets, mobile devices, AppleTV, and Roku.
Check out the exclusive trailer and trailer for “17 Blocks,” available only on IndieWire, below.