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Documenting Violence in the ‘Hood’

Documenting Violence in the ‘Hood’
Claflin University student receives coveted Sundance award for short film
By Lelita Cannon

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Howard received the phone call of a lifetime in December. It was a delegate from the Sundance Film Festival. The representative told him that his film, “Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story,” which he directed and produced with his friend Terrence Fisher, 19, had been nominated and chosen. They had made history. They became the youngest Black filmmakers to earn a coveted Sundance award. 

The pervasiveness of gun violence in Howard and Fisher’s New York neighborhood inspired them to film the documentary. Fisher’s brother was shot in the head, and between Howard and Fisher, they lost 10 friends to gun violence. For “Bullets in the Hood,” the two young filmmakers interviewed teens around New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood about their thoughts on gun violence. As they were filming, Fisher lost his eighth friend, Timothy Stansbury, who was shot and killed in the stairway leading up to the roof of his apartment building by a police officer in January 2004. Stansbury’s death prompted Howard and Fisher to include the fatal incident in their film. They began chronicling the emotional impact of the young man’s death on his family and community.

Howard, a mass communications major in his second semester at Claflin University in South Carolina, attended the 2005 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January. Although he enjoyed meeting other filmmakers, celebrities and basking in the glow of his most recent achievement, Howard says what he enjoyed most was having people view his film.

“It showed them what my neighborhood (is) about and basically, what me as a teen and millions of other teens around the country go through every day,” Howard says. “I’m just glad that people are able to finally understand. (People) shouldn’t stereotype us. We’re not trying to be gangster; we’re just trying to survive.”

It was through a community organization that Howard got his start in filmmaking. When he was 16 and still living in New York, he joined Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), a nonprofit media center that broadcasts public television shows, but also offers filmmaking, editing and lighting classes to residents of the community. PRO-TV, a division of DCTV, teaches inner-city youth how to produce documentaries. It was through this program that Howard was able to study the art of documentary filmmaking for approximately three years.

Jon Alpert and Mami Kuwano, executive producers at DCTV in New York, believed Howard and Fisher’s documentary had a chance at winning a Sundance award and persuaded the young men to submit it. It was not long before the young filmmakers got the call notifying them that their work was selected and that they received an award in the category of Special Recognition in Short Filmmaking.

Howard’s early exposure to filmmaking has paid off. Though the Sundance award has garnered him national and international recognition, it is not the only film for which he has been recognized.

His first film, a biographical documentary titled “State of Mind: Living in the Projects,” won a National Student Emmy and Best Young Filmmaker Award at the Hamptons International Film Festival. “State of Mind” chronicled his own experience living in the projects of New York, where he tried to remain positive and focused.

His second film, “Jai-Yen: Cool Heart,” received an honorable mention at the National Student Emmys and also received a Best Documentary award at the Hamptons International Film Festival. For “Jai-Yen,” Howard visited Laos for 42 days on an international assignment. For this cross-cultural documentary, he compared his New York inner-city neighborhood with an urban community in Laos.

Howard’s passion for filmmaking is evident to those who have spent time with him.

“I just like the fact that I’m able to relate somebody’s heartbreak to a lot of people, so people will have empathy for that person, so people will understand what that person goes through,” Howard says.

He is contemplating his next cinematic undertaking —  perhaps a film on Black fraternities and sororities in the South or a documentary involving a prison inmate who was unjustly sentenced. He is also working on another project that he must keep under wraps at the moment.

Although Howard is unsure about what exactly his next project will entail, he is sure about this:

“I made history. The fact that this film made it to Sundance was a big step for youth filmmaking,” Howard says. “We’re trying to show people where we live, what we do, what the youth think about the world. Hollywood better look out.”

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