As any documentary filmmaker knows, no matter how much you plan, things always change when you’re shooting. The short documentary film, Boots on the Ground, was no different.
Part of Red Bull Amaphiko: Baltimore Stories, Boots on the Ground tells the story of Bryant “Spoon” Smith, the hardworking founder of Flight 1 Carriers, a non-profit that provides disaster relief and education about climate change in neglected, urban areas. We spoke with director Charles Cohen about his experience making the film, the challenges he encountered, and his own unexpected journey to becoming a filmmaker.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
I always wanted to be a storyteller but I saw film as unreachable. The idea of me screaming action just seemed kind of bizarre, like it was being a king or something. So I became a journalist instead. As that world was changing in the early 2000’s, I got camera equipment and started to tell stories digitally. I’m self-taught though I eventually went back to school for film in 2011.
Did you grow up in Baltimore?
My father was from Baltimore and my grandfather and great-grandfather emigrated here. I always wanted to move out of Baltimore; I didn’t picture myself staying here. After [some time in] Philadelphia, I came back here, where it was cheap to live, to write the Great American Novel. This open road adventure never happened but my knowledge of Baltimore turned out to be an asset.
How did you realize that it was an asset?
I wrote for the Baltimore City Paper, an underground paper, and I felt like I knew the city in a certain way that other people didn’t. Baltimore has become this art community that all these people are migrating towards. There’s a renewed interest in the city. If I were to move now, where would I go? I have something to offer in this weird changing media [landscape]; I never thought I’d be doing something for Red Bull in Baltimore. It’s exciting.
Why did you choose to tell the story of Flight 1 Carriers?
I knew Spoon from years ago and I’ve written about him before. He’s always doing something interesting and pretty different. I checked in on him and he was telling me about this climate change thing and it struck me. A lot of people don’t think of climate change in terms of urban and poor cities. He’s always on the edge of these things. In the 90’s, he was doing urban forestry and urban gardening; now it’s real big but no one was doing it when he was doing it. He showed me around these places and so I saw it as a natural story. I also like how he talks.
How much planning did you do before you began shooting?
Flight 1 Carriers isn’t a large organization where there’s a lot of things set up. With Spoon, things change a lot so there were always changes to the plan. This isn’t United Way with an office. His story was pretty complicated too since he’s trying to do a lot of things like going into homeless camps and giving out kits. I also wanted to show different weather conditions. I had this idea of showing him in the same spot over and over again but sometimes you have plans that don’t work out.
Did anything surprise you during filming?
I’ve been around homeless people and have done stories like this before. But there was something in particular about these homeless people: they were really reclusive, in the woods of the city. They didn’t want to be on the street corner begging for money. You don’t want to be trespassing on their privacy. I have a camera and a duty to be the journalist but you also don’t want to stick it in their face and exploit their vulnerability. And Spoon- he’s trying to gain their trust- so there was a lot of negotiation where they don’t want me there. One person I did get to sign and be in it but that was out of eight [others.] I was surprised how hard it was.
I was also surprised how hard it is for Spoon to survive on his own. He’s doing the work, writing grants, surviving, constantly having to argue his case. [It was surprising] to see how vulnerable he is.
Spoon is this amazing character, what was it like shooting him?
Riding along with Spoon you get a real sense of Baltimore neighborhoods. There was even a flash flood kind of thing happening and to see how bad the streets got…that was pretty wild. Going into these homeless areas in the woods, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. With Spoon, every day is different with him.
If you did this again, is there anything you would do differently?
If I were doing it again, I would love to keep following him since he’s just getting started.
Told through the lens of three local filmmakers, Red Bull Amaphiko: Baltimore Stories is a mini documentary series that highlights those affecting positive change in the city.
See all the films here.