Filmmaker Mark Benjamin Talks with the XIIIs

Before the XIIIs traveled to the windy city of Chicago, the group needed something to capture their interest and throw them into a world unfamiliar to their own. CHICAGOLAND was the perfect candidate for such a task.

Created by Mark “Ben” Benjamin and Marc Levin, this 8-hour non-fiction CNN series captured the attention of the XIIIs with its depiction of poverty, homicides, and, in the words of Ben, the struggles of a high school that ‘served’ the South Side of Chicago.

Benjamin, father of Alexander Benjamin, C&C class of 2014, visited the XIIIs on Thursday, the 21st. He talked to the group about CHICAGOLAND and his background as a filmmaker for decades.

So, how is something non-fiction? Ben has been working in the non-fiction industry for years. He said that nothing he does is ever scripted, no scenes are re-filmed, and nobody is ever directed. He said that what you get is what you film, which is definitely not easy when you are trying to produce eight hours of quality, documented life in Chicago for CNN.

Ben has quite the resume as a film-maker. He and his production company partner Marc Levin founded in 2009, a video production service company based in NYC. They have won many awards for films such as Slam, a 1990 work that tells the story of a young African-American man whose talent for poetry is hampered by his social background. It won the Grand Jury Prize for best Dramatic Film at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival as well as the Caméra d’Or at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Levin directed it, Benjamin was the director of photography.

Marc and Ben’s Peabody award-winning 2009 non-fiction series, Brick City, focused on Bloods and Crips in Newark, New Jersey, and its Mayor Cory Booker, as the city tried to move past its history of violence, poverty, and corruption.

Next Benjamin and Levin traveled to the windy city of Chicago, and filmed for a full year. The documentary series premiered its first episode at the 2014 Sundance Festival and the entire series aired on CNN.

These documentaries have had some amazing rippling effects. Ben, in the talk on Tuesday, said that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had seen the first five episodes of Brick City and was so moved by the series that he made his first philanthropic gift of $100 million dollars to the Newark public school system. “This is one hell of an example that shows how powerful an effect a few hours of television can have,” said Ben.

With CHICAGOLAND, Liz Dozier, Principal of Fenger High School in Roseland, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, got national exposure for her work. According to Ben, Steve Jobs’ wife, Lauren Powell, saw Liz in the documentary and then donated tens of millions of dollars to help her start Chicago Beyond, a youth equity foundation that funds programs that help under served young people achieve their fullest potential.

After talking about the film industry in the past when 16 mm film was king, Ben moved on to talk about the future of film. He said that film has evolved past expensive camera gear. Nowadays, nearly everyone worldwide is capable of seeing and producing films. Whether it is with their iPhones or pro camera gear, whether they are twelve or seventy, whether they live in America or China, nowadays, anyone can film.

He discussed the new movie High Flying Bird, a sports drama directed by Steven Soderbergh, shot completely with iPhone, that premiered on Netflix just earlier this month.

He also talked about “Hale County,” a documentary filmed in rural Alabama that is made up of small moments in the lives of black people. Recently nominated for an academy award, it was filmed by a RaMell Ross, who is a photography teacher and was a basketball coach during the five years he spent filming the documentary.

Ben gave us a promising look at the future of documentary film and the rule, “the camera can never blink.”

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