FOR AHKEEM, a documentary by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest, having its world premiere in the Berlinale Forum, tells the tale of what it’s like to be young, gifted, and black in 2017.
Coming-of-age narratives need to be inventive in order to succeed. FOR AKHEEM’s storyline includes violence, constant fear of dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, as well as incarceration, and certainly fits the milieu of films depicting the difficulties of growing up in economically depressed black communities. Yet what makes it stand out is the candidness with which the two filmmakers engage in this long-term documentary, the production of which spanned over three years and, more importantly, they really got to know Daje, and considered her an active participant in telling her own story. The directors did not need to construct a coming-of-age story, and rather could focus more on meticulous editing that allows the narrative to emerge.
The film kicks off with Daje Shelton, nicknamed Boonie, who has enrolled for the Innovative Concept Academy, the last haven for troubled teenagers whose (sometimes quite stupid) mistakes almost cost them their education. The film makes it clear that the black youth from St. Louis, Missouri, are too often defined by a single mistake for their entire lives. The juvenile court and educational systems may demonstrate an understanding that it is the kids’ social conditions and race that often pre-define them and their “problematic” behavior, yet this does not mean they are spared the consequences. The kids feel as though they are expected to fail from an early age, so why even try?
What at first seems like distant observational realism echoing Frederick Wiseman (especially with the high-school scenes), gradually morphs into an extremely intimate portrayal that gets so close to Daje that we soon forget this is not fiction, especially when her diary entries are shared through her voice-over.
While it is Daje’s personal story that is in the foreground, the strong social and political commentary of the hardships of her community are consistently present. The filmmakers include footage of the media coverage of the urgent protests in Ferguson, making it evident that it is only the media that presents the murdering of black youth as something new, yet for those affected, this is obviously old news. With the media constantly lurking for the next big story, intimate films like FOR AHKEEM actually give a spotlight and voice to the individuals living those stories.