Moving Pictures

Paul Santomenna's latest short film tells the story of segregation in public housing from the point of view of those who've lived it.

September 23, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The man standing outside his new home in North Baltimore listens to the call of the cicadas and says: "It sounds like heaven to me."

And that moment gives Paul Santomenna the title of his new film, which screens tonight at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson theater in Highlandtown.

It Sounds Like Heaven is a documentary with a point of view, like most of the work of Santomenna's Megaphone Project, a nonprofit organization that makes low-cost films and videos that advocate for social and economic justice in Baltimore.

The filmmaker was still editing this latest project the other day at the computer in his Keswick Road home. The 15-minute film, made in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union, focuses on a few individuals involved in an ACLU lawsuit dealing with the effects of racial segregation in public housing. A partial consent decree has provided for subsidizing rentals outside traditional public-housing neighborhoods, where projects were built as long ago as the 1940s.

Santomenna shot Isaac Neal, a plaintiff in the case who wears a sweat shirt that proclaims him an "Old Skool" guy, talking with a kind of wonderment about his new home, with its lawn and wooden deck, and about a transformation for his family. They came to their new home from Montford Avenue in East Baltimore, where they'd lived after being displaced when Lafayette Courts was torn down.

"And we feel a lot safer now," Neal says to the camera. "Our children feel a lot safer. My children have met friends and spent the night with them. And we just got here. My 14-year-old has some white friends."

That last fact is testament to the changes Neal, a retired school custodian and a community activist, has experienced since the move.

"I wasn't too keen with white folks," he says. "I was reluctant to let myself be human, and [to] not blame all of you for something that happened 400 years ago. Now I'm open and we're going to do our part. I mean we're going to be an asset to the people that live here. ... So I'm very thankful."

The ACLU and other partners like Santomenna's work because he tells their story succinctly, using real people like Neal.

In It Sounds Like Heaven, Santomenna has filmed a spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, a civic leader and the requisite expert professor. Anthony McCarthy, the host of Daybreak on WEAA-FM, does the narration. But Santomenna has also filmed Neal and Glenda McKnight, who moved to Annapolis after living in the now-demolished Lexington Terrace project.

"Just by moving here from Baltimore City," Glenda McKnight says, "I spread my wings."

She's enrolled in the Annapolis branch of Sojourner Douglass College, well on her way to a degree in health administration, and she's got the house with a basement that she's always wanted.

Santomenna has made a dozen films dealing with similar issues of social and economic justice in Baltimore. Most of them run only as long as 15 minutes.

"We try to make them as short as we can while telling the story," he says. "People don't have time to sit around and watch a half-hour or hour piece, generally. Especially in the context of people from the ACLU, or whoever the advocate is, coming in and doing the presentation. Just slip the tape in and afterward that can spark a discussion, hopefully."

To give his film historical perspective, he dug up photos of Baltimore housing projects from the National Archives.

"That's old Cherry Hill. We'll put that in," he says, pulling images up on his computer. The photos were taken just after the first homes were built at the end of World War II.

He has pictures of the building of the Flag House Courts near Little Italy, which became one of Baltimore's bleakest public-housing sites before it was demolished three years ago.

"We all know that inner-city public housing was bad," he says. "So we don't dwell on that with these people, but talk about how better off they are being elsewhere."

He says he's very interested in having these films be part of a campaign to make some kind of change. "Which" he says, "is different from a lot of documentary in that they feel they need to be as objective as possible. We clearly are working with advocates for poor people to tell their story. We try to be fair, but we're not objective."

Santomenna grew up near Boston and first got interested in documentaries at a "fairly progressive prep school" that instilled in him a "sense of doing `good.' But I soon forgot about that and went off to college and played around."

He went on to film school, though, at the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied classic, narrative Hollywood film, but also took documentary classes, which made his narrative-film professor uneasy. And he worked as an intern on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

"One of my jobs was to read newspapers to find wacky people to be on the show," he says. "I wasn't interested in wacky people. I kept reading stories of human suffering, and that's what was interesting to me."

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