Two young filmmakers document our crime epidemic.
"My son Timothy Clark was murdered on July 13, 2007. He was No. 218."
Those are the final words of "By the Numbers," a new public service announcement by filmmakers Alec Sutherland and Todd DosSantos--who went to college in Philly--and a local organization called the Anti-Violence Partnership. The PSA is just a minute long, but it's well worth catching on its final screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival Sat., April 12.
Unassuming street scenes make up the action--the dim exterior of a shuttered corner store, a bunch of anonymous streetcorners, a dirty bit of sidewalk outside a bar. The only bright spot in each scene is a little white box, lit from within, bearing a number in big black print.
One box reads "83." It sits in the middle of a parking garage, unnoticed by office workers marching past. A little kid wheels his bike around another box, "200," on a graffiti-chalked piece of blacktop. Four boxes stand in a neat row outside a bar: 229, 230, 231, 268.
"All of the locations are actual locations in which the number on the box corresponds to the victim who was murdered there," says Sutherland. "The four boxes in a row sit next to a bar in Southwest Philadelphia in which four people were murdered in one night."
Bette Clark, Timothy's mom, provides the only dialogue. She shares memories of her son, who was 15 when he and a friend left the Clarks' house in Tacony late one night to get snacks at a nearby 7-Eleven. Both boys were gunned down execution-style down the street from Bette's home. The case is still unsolved.
Clark's voice sounds brittle and drained, recalling how her son once painted a neighbor's house, and how girls loved his blue eyes. "We did everything together," she says over the film's melancholy piano music as another box lights up the screen. "If I went to the store, he went with me. If we went to doctor's appointments, he went with me. We were a team." The last scene shows Bette in a black coat and gloves, holding up a box: 218.
Sutherland says he and DosSantos approached the Anti-Violence Partnership about creating a PSA in November of 2007. They're both 25, and went to college together in Philly. (Sutherland declines to name the school, saying, "Because of problems we had trying to shoot there postgrad, we vowed never to give the university any credit.") They now live in Brooklyn, where DosSantos runs a fledgling company called IMC Productions, and Sutherland does freelance commercial production.
Sutherland, who's worked mainly on music videos and commercial projects, says he and DosSantos wanted to tackle a subject of greater social import than their previous projects. They approached the Anti-Violence Partnership (AVP), which provides support to families of homicide victims, and teaches conflict resolution in schools. The AVP introduced them to Bette Clark.
"It worked out perfectly because her son's murder was one that we had been particularly interested in when researching homicides for 2007," says Sutherland. They shot the PSA pro bono with AVP's cooperation, uploaded it to YouTube, and are hoping to get it on regional network TV.
"The idea was to create something extremely minimal, the antithesis of the commercial," says Sutherland. "Something that, when dropped in the middle of an ad run on television, would slow the whole viewer's pace down."
They originally planned to film the murder locations without background action or the lit-up boxes, but then became intrigued by the oft- repeated statistic of last year's murders. "We all hear about this annual count, like it's a barometer reading on how the city is doing, but it fails to really inspire any action," says Sutherland. He hopes to shoot more PSAs in the future. "I don't know how much we're really helping to fix the problems we tackle," he says, "but it feels better than selling soap."
Tasneem Paghdiwala (firstname.lastname@example.org) is PW's writer at large.