On Monday evening, Azalee Irving’s short documentary will be streamed by the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Black Harvest Film Festival. That would be an exciting honor for anyone. For Irving, it runs deeper than excitement.
Irving is 17, the youngest of seven siblings, and lives in a two-flat in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood with her mother, her sister, her niece and the star of her three-minute film — her 4-year-old nephew, Ja’King Jones.
“Being an African American female on the South Side of Chicago, I see a lot of violence, a lot of poverty,” she said when I called her the other day. “Living in the neighborhood with negatives can make you give up on what makes you positive.”
Irving is blunt about her long struggle to see the positive. As a child, she spent time in foster care. She took mood medications before discovering that therapy was more helpful.
“I started flunking in school,” she said, recalling a time not long ago. “My behavior got bad. I just didn’t have anything that I saw to strive for. I lost interest for my creative spark. DePaul’s program really opened that door back up to me.”
She’s talking about the DePaul/CHA Documentary Film Program for Girls, a collaboration between DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts and the Chicago Housing Authority. The program is built on two central ideas. One is the need to expand the stories that get told — about Chicago and beyond — by cultivating a wider range of storytellers. The other is the need to expand the vision and experiences of young women living in CHA-subsidized housing.
Liliane Calfee, who runs the program, calls these young women “cycle breakers.”
“They’re the ones going to raise the next generation,” she says. “If you can change their minds, or help them choose education, you can make changes in a single generation.”
The program has been around since 2016, but it’s different during the pandemic of 2020. Instead of meeting in person during the six-week filmmaking period this summer, the 15 girls convened on Zoom. In the first half of the program, using Apple iPad Pros on loan from the city’s Department of Family & Support Services, each girl made a three-minute film, usually involving life at home.
“My individual project was inspired by me trying to step out of the box,” Irving said. “Instead of having a film about bullying or racism — the classics — it was, what can I show others that I haven’t seen before?”
Her answer: her love for Ja’King.
“I wanted to show everybody else how much my nephew means to me,” she said, “and show others what their younger relatives can mean to them.”
She recorded Ja’King dancing in the living room, laughing, flexing his bicep, lining up toy trucks on the front stoop. In her voice-over, she talked about helping make sure he was well-dressed and, above all, spared some of the “tough things” she’d been through.
“I got discouraged a couple of times,” she said, recalling the film process, “but the mentors pushed me. I’m glad that I got pushed to try my best.”
She gave her film a title: “Little Hands, Big Help.”
Her endurance paid off. One reward came when her film, along with others from the program, was selected to appear in an Apple showcase for young people. One Apple executive said that “Little Hands, Big Help” brought her to tears.
In the second half of the DePaul/CHA program, all the girls worked in teams. With pandemic precautions, they ventured into the wider world to tell bigger stories, like the lack of translators in hospitals.
Irving worked on a project proposed by teammate Deonna West: that social media feeds materialism. It was West’s second year in the program, and she loved it despite the pandemic limitations.
“I like that it was an all girls thing,” said West, who’s 17. “It was just so nice to have a group of girls that relate to you. All of us were being very nice to each other. There was no hate.”
And in August, when the work was done, the girls and their faculty mentors gathered — again, with precautions — for a graduation ceremony in Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown. The world looked bigger and brighter to them than it had a few weeks earlier, including for Irving, who came to the celebration with a bandage on her belly.
She’d been stabbed in her neighborhood while trying to protect some younger kids from a guy she later learned lives in Waukegan. She was grateful he didn’t hit any organs and that no one else got hurt. She was determined to come and be part of her new community.
Starting at 6 p.m. Monday, Irving’s film and several others by her new friends will be streamed as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival.
She’s sad that because she’ll be on her first day of training to work at a UPS warehouse over the holidays she won’t be able to watch. But her family will, and they’ll be proud.
“That’s me!” Ja’King said when he saw himself on film.
“Everybody loves you, dude,” she told him, and she knew that helping him to know he was loved was the biggest reward of all.
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