When local filmmaker Erik Ljung started filming the family of Dontre Hamilton, he didn’t have a specific goal in mind. “At the beginning I didn’t know what I wanted to do with [the footage], and we both [Ljung and the Hamiltons] didn’t know what we were getting into,” says Ljung. “I just kept showing up at rallies, and the more I filmed with them, the more they trusted me.”
Hamilton, an unarmed black man diagnosed with schizophrenia, was shot and killed by a policeman Downtown on April 30, 2014. The officer, later fired from the police force, was never charged, and a federal investigation in 2015 determined there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal civil rights charges.
In the aftermath of Hamilton’s death, Ljung and his team – many working for free – amassed more than 400 hours of footage over the course of 2 ½ years that documents the Hamilton family’s emergence as leaders in their community and nationally. With the help of editor Michael Vollmann, who was instrumental in creating a compelling narrative, Ljung assembled a feature-length documentary, The Blood is at the Doorstep. The movie debuted in March at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where it was one of 10 films in its category selected from nearly 1,000 entries. It received a standing ovation. Later, the Hollywood Reporter included it on a short list of critic’s picks.
The movie depicts how the Hamiltons were thrust into the spotlight following the shooting while still mourning, and it shows the struggle for justice from their perspective. Key players – including District Attorney John Chisholm, Police Chief Ed Flynn and Christopher Manney, the officer – are all in the film.
It “shows a family that was very apolitical, but felt no one was fighting for them, so they took matters into their own hands to create change,” says Ljung.
Ljung first used the footage to make a short film on the topic, Mothers for Justice, shown at the Milwaukee Film Festival in 2015. Both versions are entirely local projects: Ljung received his funding from Milwaukee individuals and organizations and worked exclusively with Milwaukee filmmakers.
The film will be shown at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City June 9 and 10, with Nate and Maria Hamilton (Dontre’s brother and mother) in attendance. Says Ljung: “Our ultimate goal is to bring the film to a national audience so that the Hamilton family’s story can help to inspire communities and reformative measures across the country.”
The film will have its Milwaukee debut this fall. Find out more. ◆