Videos speak to social ills

Cinematography: Film director's Megaphone Project depicts problems in the city, helping to spur change.

February 13, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Michael Bardoff, Paul Santomenna captured the worst of Sharp-Leadenhall: dilapidated city-owned public housing, rodent problems, broken plumbing and collapsing ceilings.

He produced a 15-minute video about the South Baltimore housing complex and showed it to small groups of decision makers. As a result, key officials are taking steps to fix some of the run-down public housing units.

In the past two years, Santomenna, 37, has become Baltimore's leading practitioner of an unusual form of cinematography that highlights social issues.

Aside from his video about Sharp-Leadenhall, called "A Promise to Keep," his nonprofit Megaphone Project has produced a dozen videos. They include a four-minute clip on the city Detention Center's health care problems, an eight-minute feature on property flipping and a 40-minute documentary about Baltimoreans opposing the war in Iraq.

None seeks mass audiences.

"We are ignoring mainstream distribution outlets," said Santomenna. "If you show it to 150 of the right people, you will trigger change."

Although such targeted-audience videos are relatively new in Baltimore, similar projects have been in existence in Philadelphia since 1982 and in Chicago since 1990. Meanwhile, a number of major backers, spearheaded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, have taken an interest in the potential of videos as an instrument of social change.

The Sharp-Leadenhall film's name refers to the promises made to residents of one of the city's oldest African-American neighborhoods, which counted Frederick Douglass among its frequent visitors.

When the film was being shot, Mayor Martin O'Malley came to Sharp-Leadenhall and said city-owned public housing there "seems to be the worst-maintained housing in the whole neighborhood." He then pledged to fix problems that ranged from rodent infestation to leaky roofs to malfunctioning plumbing.

Megaphone Project backers showed the problems, and the mayor's vow to housing managers and elected officials. The housing authority is repairing 24 units as a result of the video, said Betty Bland-Thomas, president of the Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee.

"It's great to have a promise from a politician; it's even better to have it on film," said Michael Bardoff, a Sharp-Leadenhall community organizer.

"A Promise to Keep" includes still photographs from historical archives, footage from community meetings and interviews with residents.

"We had to move," June Spratley tells the interviewer, when houses were condemned in the 1960s for an alignment of Interstate 95 that was later dropped. Linda Davis provides a counterpoint. She was able to buy a home in Sharp-Leadenhall. "It is a different feeling," she says in the film.

To produce the 15-minute film costing $7,500, Santomenna shot eight hours of footage over seven months. "We went through draft after draft of treatments and scripts," he recalled.

The Megaphone Project received some of its initial funding from the Open Society Institute, which gave Santomenna a fellowship to produce films about social issues.

Santomenna earned his master's degree from the California Institute of the Arts.

He is currently working on a film on the consequences of gentrification in Reservoir Hill, just south of Druid Hill Park.

"There is a sense of urgency because there will be big changes in that neighborhood," he said, describing that video as an attempt by the area's improvement council to get more residents involved so that they will not lose their homes as the area gentrifies.

He is also working on a 15-minute film about Baltimore public housing tenants' class action suit against the housing authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"It's really an attempt to put a human face on some very complicated issues," he said.

The tenants' suit, after nine years, was tried recently.

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