A story and a vision: My conversation with documentary filmmaker Erik Ljung
25 October 12:57pmNicholas Pipitone • Milwaukee
“I was literally watching the Olympics at home when Sherman Park happened. My buddy plays for team Nigeria in basketball and I was watching and scrolling through Instagram and I saw an activist that I follow was posting videos of people smashing cop cars.
I thought, where is this happening? A little later he posted more stuff and I was like, holy shit. This is in Milwaukee.
So I flipped on the news and just grabbed my camera and raced over there.”
Those words are the words of Filmmaker Erik Ljung, who is sitting across the table from me at Fuel Café. It’s pretty intense for breakfast talk, admittedly, but he’s telling me the about the night of August 13, 2016, when he went to film the riot in Sherman Park.
I’m guessing he is much more relaxed today than he was that day.
I’m not sure that the essence of what it means to be a documentary filmmaker can be boiled down to one scenario, but for me that one comes damn close. Possessing the burning desire to tell a story, vérité style, and to dedicate yourself, regardless of how challenging or uncomfortable it may be to get the footage you need to tell your story.
At the time of the riot Erik was in the throes of shooting his acclaimed documentary The Blood is at the Doorstep, in which Ljung followed the Hamilton family after their son Dontre was needlessly shot 14 times in Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee. Their search for justice and answers in a complicated and unjust racial landscape builds a multi-layered narrative into a compelling piece of storytelling. But it paints a bleak landscape, mostly in part because the answers seem just out of the grasp of the people who need them most.
The storyteller living in Erik’s head knew – as harrowing as the prospects of filming it may be – that the Sherman Park riot was something he needed to document. “I was by myself in my car – I thought, this is the next step of our film – this is how I see it ending,” he told me. “It’s like covering the Hamilton family – the whole point is this isn’t just one family, it’s happening multiple times in every community.”
“This uprising is not because one kid got shot. It’s because this has been happening for decades,” Erik said, realizing the depth at which his story needed to be told. It’s a stark contrast to local news, which delivers information in short sound bites, the nuance of the situation and its deeper meaning lost. The documentarian has a responsibility to cover the story from many angles, but keep it cohesive. And do whatever it takes. That’s why Erik felt he had to go to Sherman Park on that August night.
He sat in his car, checking his phone for updates and watching the events unfold in front of him for what he remembers to be about 30-45 minutes. At times like these, during watershed moments and life changing events, time seems elastic. “I tried to make eye contact and it wasn’t cool – police were retreating and they came back in force and created a wall. So I got out and started filming with another news crew. People were yelling at us and throwing bricks at us – standing with the news crew made it more dangerous so I went off by myself closer to the gas station and started talking to people.”
Erik had sacrificed too much of his own money and time to see this moment slip away, as scary as it was. You wish it wasn’t happening at all. You’re serving two masters in the making of a film like this; you want to make something great but you also want to do right by the Hamilton family.
“We have to cover this,” he said. “I don’t want to, but we have to tell the story.”
Erik found solace among the chaos when he happened upon a gentleman in the crowd willing to help. Erik remembers his words, and still plays them back to himself to this day:
“If you protect me from the police, I will protect you from the community,” the man said.
His footage of the riot is a pivotal moment, one of many, in The Blood is at the Doorstep. But for Erik his car arriving in Sherman Park that night was just one stop in a long journey that still finds him looking for story, purpose, and, to put it plainly, work.
Erik is in his tenth year in Milwaukee after graduating from San Diego State in 2008. He was a graphic designer at the time, and landed a gig working for Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall. “Video journalism is something I always wanted to do. But I didn’t think it was possible – I chose design because it was the business of art and dabbles in photo and video,” Erik said. He did that for a couple of years and during that time two very important things happened.
Erik got involved in something called the Blue Ribbon Vision music series, where he was filming bands coming through town like Grizzly Bear and Peter, Bjorn and John. This allowed him to dip his toes in video production. Then he got involved in a friend’s documentary project called Points of Interest where he was following Juniper Tar and Strand of Oaks. “I took a week off of work – it ended up not being about the band, it was about people you meet on the road.” This is where Erik’s passion for documentary film fully formed itself and there was no turning back.
From then on, his life as a graphic designer was essentially over.
He has been working as a freelance filmmaker for 8 years now, and the day I talked to him it seemed he was at a crossroads, weighing the freelance life with the life of a gainfully employed full time filmmaker. The jobs that weren’t there 8 years ago are available now, thanks to that ridiculously and wonderfully overused word: content. It helps to have a film like The Blood is at the Doorstep under your belt, along with stints for Vice, The New York Times. The Travel Channel’s show Mysteries at the Museum, and season 2 of Making a Murderer for Netflix.
These gigs aren’t happening by chance; once you’ve got a feature documentary under your belt and you get distribution (The Blood is at the Doorstep was recently added to iTunes and Amazon) doors open. Still, you make a lot of sacrifices in your life to make a film like The Blood is at the Doorstep. The dedication it requires, not to mention the financial toll it takes, coupled with seeing what the Hamilton family was going through day in and day out was physically and emotionally draining.
But talking to Erik you get the profound sense that he puts a lot of passion into his work, which to me is the secret sauce for extended success. He is not an outside observer with a camera; he is part of it, possessing an unwavering belief in what he is doing.
“Film is a huge endeavor takes years of a singular focus. You have to be determined and continually go out there and do it.”
See more of Erik Ljung's work on the web here.