The AFI DOCS Interview: CHECK IT Directors Dana Flor & Toby Oppenheimer
In the heart of the nation’s capital, the Check It is a street gang comprised of gay and transgender teens who support each other in the face of outside bullying, attacks and discrimination. The group struggles with an existence underscored by violence, poverty and prostitution, but when a young mentor comes into their lives, he endeavors to help them find a more productive outlet: through the creative world of fashion. Finally faced with a better option, the Check It members must now attempt to beat the odds by getting off the street and working toward lives of purpose and accomplishment in CHECK IT, directed by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer.
AFI spoke to the directors ahead of the film’s AFI DOCS premiere.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
Flor: I started out as a print journalist, then moved to TV news and worked as a producer and reporter for many years. It was an amazing training ground as a filmmaker, but I ultimately found the short, sound-bite format of news pieces frustrating and limiting. I wanted to work on stories that were nuanced, required depth and could be done artistically. I also wanted to do stories that no one else was telling. I worked on many documentaries before I did my first independent feature, THE NINE LIVES OF MARION BARRY (2009), when I joined forces with my marvelous partner Toby Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer: I grew up in a family of print journalists. My parents met as reporters at the Philadelphia Daily News, then settled in Washington, DC, where one wrote for Washington Star while the other wrote for Washington Post. The importance and immediacy of non-fiction storytelling was forced upon me at a very young age: what constitutes strong characters, what makes a great story and how best to structure it. But print was never for me; I was a movie and TV guy through and through. Once I dove deep into documentaries during college and realized the power that such a blend of journalism and art and music could impress upon you — the utter privilege of bearing witness to real lives and true stories unfolding before your eyes — I had found my calling.
What drew you to tell this story?
Flor: First, there is nothing else out there like the Check It. This group is the only African American gay gang in existence. They also happen to be some of the most complex, conflicted and cinematic citizens we’ve ever encountered, with personal narratives that are singularly astonishing, inspiring and heartbreaking. But beyond the amazing subjects in our story lie some larger central themes that are very important to both of us.
Oppenheimer: CHECK IT is about the mostly unseen and untold consequences of race, gender and class inequality in this country — the uneven and often unforgiving playing field that so many Americans are born into, where hope is a rumor and chances to change the dynamic are few and far between.
How did you find your subjects?
Flor: When our last film THE NINE LIVES OF MARION BARRY was finished, I was doing research for another film that we are working on about the city’s go-go music scene. That brought me in contact with Mo, an ex-convict, go-go promoter and gang counselor. While he thought a go-go documentary would be awesome, he thought there was a more pressing tale to tell: the Check It, a tough posse of off-the-chain gay gangbangers who were also fashion models on the catwalk. Once we met the crew, there was no turning back.
Oppenheimer: For the first months, after finding the kids who ultimately became the film’s main protagonists, we barely, if ever, shot a frame. We just tagged along, hung out, did a whole lot of nothing. They got sick of us many times when we wouldn’t leave, but they also got used to us, loved to make fun of us and, very slowly, began to see that we weren’t going to give up on this. So, like anybody else who has ever been the subject of a documentary, it did take them a while to get used to having a film crew tag along everywhere they went. Of course, there were times they didn’t want us there or asked us to stop filming, and we readily complied. More than once, we would go looking for them and we’d see them literally running away from us, which was frustrating, but also pretty funny. But, there were also many times where a few days would go by when we wouldn’t see them and they’d complain that we were ignoring them. It was a unique, complicated and always evolving relationship.
What was a particular challenge you faced in making your film?
Flor: A low point was always when we would hear that people loved the film but it was too “controversial,” too “risky” for them to get involved or support or fund or promote. Our film does bring up many controversial topics, but that’s the point. As filmmakers, our first instinct is to entertain — to make compelling work. But while doing so, we want to discover and give voice to alternative points of view. That means sometimes shining a light on difficult, uncomfortable topics. We believe the power of film is vast and that it can raise life-changing issues. It can educate, inspire dialogue and be a catalyst for change. It is our hope that our film will do exactly that.
Oppenheimer: We have both worked on this film as a pure labor of love. We worked with no pay throughout, taking other jobs to keep us going meanwhile. It was a tough slog and required a lot of patience and resilience. We feel very fortunate to have received grants from the Tribeca Film Institute, Pare Lorenz and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. We also raised money through a crowdfunding campaign that helped pay for our editors, and received funds and in-kind services from our executive producers at Radical Media. Overall, finding financing to complete CHECK IT was undoubtedly one of the hardest tasks, occupying an enormous amount of our time and energy that could have otherwise been spent on filmmaking.
What do you hope audiences take away from your film?
Flor: We hope they fall in love with these kids as we have. We want people to empathize with a subculture that they, prior to the movie, most likely had no idea even existed. And we hope that our film will help create a willingness to change the way we, as a society, treat the Check it and marginalized kids like them. Their struggle exists not just with one small gang in one city, but worldwide.
Oppenheimer: We want people to understand that true acceptance of gay and transgender people — especially those of color raised in low-income neighborhoods — still has a very long way to go. There may be new legislation and popular TV shows, but the statistics tell the story. Up to 50% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. 86% of LGBT youth are harassed in school and 42% live in a hostile environment where they are not accepted. Baby steps are being made but there is still a long road to walk.
Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location in which to screen your film?
Flor: Many reasons! First of all, DC is my city and my home! Its also home of the Check It and home to the last feature film we did, THE NINE LIVES OF MARION BARRY — so in short, many, many years filming what seems like every corner of this city. The city is my muse. I was born and raised in this area and have a lifelong fascination with Washington stories and the fact that so many of them remain off the radar of the general populace. Also, as a local, I’m very invested in seeing that our city becomes a prime destination for filmmakers — because there are a lot of resources, talent and potential in DC. This is the perfect place for our film!
Oppenheimer: As was the case with our previous documentary on Marion Barry, D.C. is a central character in CHECK IT. It’s a personal mission of mine to tell the amazing stories hiding in plain sight all over the city — to give voice to those who have none and shine a spotlight on issues and stories that are overlooked. It took me living outside the city to realize just how little non-Washingtonians actually know about the real DC beyond the federal government and museums. For someone as passionate about sharing true, untold stories through the medium of nonfiction film as I am, the city holds endless, amazing possibilities.
CHECK IT plays AFI DOCS Saturday, June 25, at 9:00 p.m. Buy tickets here.