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‘Greyland’: Documentary turns lens on Youngstown

Documentary turns lens on Youngstown

Rocco Sait is one of two main subjects in the documentary "Greyland," which takes its name from the business Sait operates on West Boardman Street in Youngstown. (Submitted photo)

There is no shortage of documentaries shot to conform to the initial expectations of the filmmaker.

But a true documentary doesn’t have a script, and anyone shooting a movie over seven years is going to encounter some unexpected twists and detours along the way.

“Greyland” definitely isn’t the movie Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque envisioned. What starts as the story of two young people, Rocco Sait and Amber Beall, working to change their community for the better evolves into a tale of the economic obstacles and institutional status that prevent any real progress.

“It was not an easy film to make,” Sicotte-Levesque said during a telephone interview. “When you make a film over six, seven years, things evolve. You have to step out, pause, ‘How is this going to work?,’ but I never gave up and neither did our production company, and we got really attached to Youngstown and the way Rocco and Amber let us into their lives. We were privileged to have that relationship.”

The movie already has won awards at a couple of film festivals, but “Greyland” will get its local premiere Tuesday at the Westside Bowl in Youngstown.

“How Youngstown perceives it is probably the most important thing,” Sicotte-Levesque said. “It doesn’t matter what the greatest film critic thinks of the film. It’s what the people of Youngstown think about it. If they feel it’s honest, if they feel it represents them and they identify with it, that’s really great. It’s such a privilege to show it in Youngstown. At the same time, it’s nerve-wracking. It’s the one place, ‘Oh, I hope it goes well and the people are really excited to see it.'”

The journey to that Youngstown premiere started a decade ago. Sicotte-Levesque, founder of Journalists for Human Rights and a documentarian whose previous films took her to Sudan and Ghana, canvassed for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 and spent a lot of time in Ohio and Pennsylvania. She was struck by the poverty and class divides she found in some of the communities she visited.

Around the same time, Justin Gest, a friend of hers and an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, was working on his book “The New Minority,” which used Youngstown in the U.S. and Barking and Dagenham in the U.K. to chronicle cultural and political shifts within the white working class.

“He called me up and said, ‘You have to come here and make a film,'” she said. “He was very convincing.”

Sicotte-Levesque and director of photography Katerine Giguere came to Youngstown in 2013, and one of the first people they met was Sait, a musician and recovering addict who supported himself by salvaging the history among the debris in the homes of Youngstown’s decaying neighborhoods and selling those items at Greyland on West Boardman Street. Sait also had dreams of turning The Hub downtown into a diner and artist enclave.

“We followed him for a long weekend,” she said. “Initially, it was difficult to convince him. A lot of people have come into Youngstown, a lot of media coverage, especially outsiders, they come in, see what’s there and take their stories. It’s a bit of an extractive relationship. He was quite wary of that in the beginning. But we’re about the same age, and the films we make are art pieces, not just journalistic pieces. We give a perspective that people don’t ordinarily get through ordinary media.

“That first little weekend became a seven-year journey. We left Youngstown but somehow we never left Youngstown. We kept coming back.”

They connected with Beall, a single mother who had bought a house in the Wick Park neighborhood for a few thousand dollars that she slowly was working to restore, on a subsequent visit.

During the course of the film, Beall was active with the neighborhood association, appointed to the city’s charter review committee and hoped to get a job with the city helping others try to make the the positive change in the city’s neighborhoods that she was trying to achieve in spite of the many obstacles that thwarted those improvements.

“Amber and Rocco have a lot of things in common, but their journeys are quite different,” Sicotte-Levesque said. “At the same time, there are so many parallels in what they’re trying to do even if they’re doing it in very different ways.”

Without giving away too many spoilers, neither Sait’s nor Beall’s efforts pan out the way they hoped. Artists get abandoned when developers see dollar signs in those once-empty downtown buildings, and Beall finds little interest in real change while serving on the charter review committee.

“The Hub project didn’t materialize whatsoever, and Greyland ended up closing for a while,” Sicotte-Levesque said. “That’s the beauty and difficulty of documentary filmmaking. You can’t predict. We had a bit of a set idea of what we wanted to film, but in a place like Youngstown, things change so quickly. What we envisioned for the film is completely different from what we have … This is reality. This is life.”

“Greyland” keeps the focus on Sait’s and Beall’s stories. There are no interviews with the business people Sait was trying to work with downtown or with city officials about Beall’s frustrations with building code enforcement or the charter review committee.

“We did a lot of interviews with the former mayor and the current mayor just before the election,” Sicotte-Levesque said. “It was a stylistic choice (not to use them). Had we made it for a news outlet, obviously we would have integrated those points of view. We did it more for research purposes. You do interviews and then see how we’ll use them. As we structured the film in the editing room, the film calls for telling Rocco and Amber’s stories and letting them speak and being in their bubble, in their heads.”

Sait’s music also is woven throughout the film.

The filmmaker still is looking to secure a distributor or broadcaster for the 77-minute film, so Tuesday’s screening is the only confirmed opportunity to see the film locally. Sicotte-Levesque, Giguere and editor Annie Leclair will do a Q&A following the screening at Westside Bowl.

“The editor will be coming for the first time,” Sicotte-Levesque said. “She’s lived with the images of Rocco and Amber for years now but she’s never set foot in Youngstown. We’re really excited to be there and fortunate to have a discussion with people afterward. That’s the point of these types of films, to provoke discussion.

“The film doesn’t cover everything. It’s a glimpse, a small snapshot, but we hope it can be a conversation starter. It will be great to have that conversation with everyone who attends the screening. We haven’t made it to the other festivals as much because of timing and whatnot, but we wanted to make time for the three of us to be there, to be present for this screening. It means a lot more for us to present it there.”

If you go …

WHAT: Screening of the documentary “Greyland” followed by a Q&A with director Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque, director of photography Katerine Giguere and editor Annie Leclair

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Westside Bowl, 2617 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown

HOW MUCH: $5 in advance and $10 day of show. Tickets are available in advance through Eventbrite.

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