“Debut filmmaker Amman Abbassi on the joys of independent filmmaking and the tribulations of filming in his hometown.” Interview by Alice Jennings.
Rural Arkansas may not be the most obvious place to make a film about gang culture, but for 25-year-old Amman Abbassi, it was the ideal location for his debut film Dayveon. The son Pakistani immigrants, Abbassi’s parents moved around Arkansas while he grew up before settling in Little Rock. Littlerock is still Amman’s hometown and also where he is when I call him. I catch him while he’s making himself breakfast, he sits down in his kitchen for a chat and goes on to tell me how Little Rock has a surprisingly troublesome gang – affiliation and is a place that is very much known for being a dangerous place to live. “But unlike Chicago or LA where there is a lot of high crime, its more about where you fit in. I just wanted to dissect gangs from the level of social acceptance of how they fit into society. It became clear from speaking to these young kids in Chicago that sometimes a gang can be that sort of group that give you that camaraderie and offer comfort when you need it, so it was sort of like turning that on its head and looking at gangs from the standpoint of brotherhood’”.
The film tells the story thirteen-year-old Dayveon, a boy on the cusp of adulthood, mourning the loss of his older brother and searching for acceptance and solidarity within a local gang. Little Rock has had a long history of gang problems, David Koon of the Arkansas Times points out how the gang problems reached their height in the early nineties, “Little Rock was very much a city of nations, each invisibly bordered, each with a standing army ready to die to keep their territory unmolested by rivals. In 1993, the number of homicides in the city spiked to a record high of 76, then the highest per-capita murder rate in the country. Most of the dead were young black males.”
The concept for Dayveon was conceived while Abbassi was working on a documentary in Chicago about youth gang culture, he mentions how he felt that his ‘outsider’ perspective gave him the necessary insight to make a film about gang culture. He clearly feels a strong connection to where he is from and he went on to discuss “Arkansas doesn’t really have a film structure per se so it was a tough experience trying to make the film, but I wanted to do something handmade and close to home, living here has shaped the person I am in many ways so it felt like a very natural decision”. Abbassi draws attention to the fact that many of the older gang members see a part of themselves in the character of Dayveon, “We see this young, tender, boy and then look at the older gang members who are so hardened and we can only assume what may have happened in that time for them and what they used to be like as youngsters” interesting because we start to get a clearer picture of who Dayveon is, again highlighting the negative repercussions being in a gang has on these men. The gang members seem jaded and lost, making it extremely challenging not to place some kind of judgment on the social circumstances of their lives, despite the sense of ‘brotherhood’ they may have.
Amman had just arrived back from the Berlinale Film Festival when we spoke, after Dayveon’s first screening to a European audience, an experience that he describes as ‘refreshing’. We discuss if the response from European audiences had been different to the predominantly northern American audiences who had seen the film at the Sundance festival, Abbassi says, “it was definitely very different because this is an American story, and the American audience came in with a bit of context but I felt that the European audience was a blank slate in many regards, so that was exciting for me. At the screenings the questions were thoughtful and penetrative, on a deeper level and from a totally different perspective, I really enjoyed that. The audiences were particularly interested in the safeguarding of the actors, none of them had ever acted before and many of whom had prior experience in gangs or had been affected by them”. It seems Abbassi’s intent was to tell this story as honestly as possible and use people who had a true understanding of this life, the choice to not use professional actors was very much intentional as Abbassi explains “an actor just flying in, and trying to understand these experiences would feel false right away. We all did the hard work of getting non – actors who had personal experiences that they could push into these characters and that was very fruitful for us because so much came out of that.” It would seem that the characters may not be real but the emotions are, “these are real people drawing from their own life experiences”.
Abbassi makes it very clear that this film was not a political statement. “It’s a film of observation and I would want people to hopefully empathise with kids in this area about what its like to grow up being in a gang, seeing how that experience would be not so different from our own lives. The objective if there is one; is not to place judgment.” Ambitious perhaps? Given the political nature of this subject matter, by default its extremely difficult not to place some level of judgment, or at least social critique on the gang culture in Little Rock, but this film successfully conveys the goodness in this community and Dayveon is at the very least, a highly commendable endeavour in true to life storytelling.