“It’s not a picture, It’s a tool”: A conversation on The Area, and documentary as a frame for community action

In the heart of the South Side of Chicago, an 85-acre area abutting a railyard means different things to different people. For more than 400 African American families, it is home. For Norfolk Southern railroad company, it is space to expand its train-to-truck intermodal depot.

The 2018 documentary The Area tells a story that’s well known to many. It follows the five-year odyssey of a neighborhood, where African-American families are being displaced by a multibillion-dollar freight company. The film is told through the perspective of its residents including homeowner-turned-activist Deborah Payne, who vows to be “the last house standing,” and the Row Row Boys, teen friends who must start a new life across gang lines.

In May 2019, Block Cinema welcomed filmmaker David Schalliol, protagonist/producer Deborah Payne, and producer Brian Ashby for a discussion about the documentary and its reverberations. The conversation was moderated by Naeema Jamilah Torres (MFA in Documentary Media, 2019), engagement producer of the film. The screening and discussion was presented in conjunction with the ongoing Block Cinema series Made in Chicago, and New Docs and in partnership with the Northwestern MFA in Documentary Media program.

“So when it came to doing the documentary, I don’t think I really understood what a documentary was at all. Documentaries to me were something boring about something to learn. A documentary wasn’t really my thing. I was more involved in the fight for the people and the respect that we were demanding until we were gone out of The Area. But today I can honestly say from the bottom of my heart, how grateful I am for this documentary and being able to be a part of it. It’s not just a picture or something boring to look at, it’s a tool and people request it. And when its shown, a lot of times at the end, I have conversations with people and they tell me what they’re going through and they are asking how to fight. I’m so grateful that the fight was documented.”

Deborah Payne, protagonist and producer of The Area
Left to Right: Naeema Jamilah Torres, Brian Ashby, David Schalliol, and Deborah Payne

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About The Area (2018)

 The Area begins in 2012, when the railroad company has already bought out over half the area’s residents and is picking off the holdouts. Middle-aged homeowner Deborah Payne puts off her plans to move; instead, she digs in and becomes an ad hoc community organizer. As her neighbors jump ship and houses are pulled down, property values implode. Valiant and stubborn, Payne fights for fair-value buyouts and respect for those who remain. Aided by an exquisite, pitch-perfect score from electronic-music artist Phoelix, director David Schalliol brings a sensitive ear and a fine documentary aesthetic to this all-too-typical urban tale. 

Reviewer Steve Prokopy of Third Coast Review writes,”It’s a film that is both about holding onto and restoring dignity in the face of insurmountable odds, and audiences will alternate between being heartbroken and enraged. And the only thing keeping us afloat are the many examples of people who hang on because to give up would be as reprehensible as those trying to tear them down. It’s a profoundly emotional work that should be seen by all.”

Images from the evening

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