At their grandmother’s 80th birthday party, Jason Zeldes, director of the new film Romeo Is Bleeding, chatted with his cousin Molly Raynor, a Bay Area poet and teacher, about one of her students. Poet and playwright Donté Clark was working on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Richmond, California. Intrigued, Zeldes traveled from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and found the subject of his first documentary feature.
Zeldes’ film moves inside the community of Richmond, into the classrooms, the homes, the streets and, crucially, the lives of the people who dwell there. The audience experiences Richmond through Donté's eyes, watching his efforts to transform the grief and pain of a turf war into a more hopeful future through the optimism of his artistry.
I spoke with Zeldes about his craft, the genesis of Romeo Is Bleeding (premiering Apr. 29 at El Cerrito High School) and his year in the Bay Area as a first-time director.
How did Molly Raynor and Donté Clark first meet?
Making Waves was an after school program meant to close the achievement gap. Molly was teaching a standard English curriculum, but she comes from a spoken word and creative writing background. So she pitched her bosses this idea of a poetry workshop, and they literally started in a closet.
What started as Molly and Donté in a janitor’s closet, over the course of six or seven years now, has grown into a thriving artistic community with the goal of redefining how Richmond is perceived. They’re definitely making real inroads.
How did the film come about then?
I had known about Donté Clark for a long time... [Molly] wrote to the family about him: he was her first student. I would help them out when RAW Talent (Richmond Artists with Talent, a music and performing arts program for Richmond youth) was doing their smaller poetry shows. But it was in the summer of 2012 when Molly came up to me and said, “You’re not going to believe what Donté is up to.”
The more she described it the more it sounded cinematic. I asked her at that point if she would mind if I came up with cameras and did some exploratory filming. And she said, “I was really hoping you’d say that.” A couple of weeks after that I was in Richmond for the first time. It was actually August 6, 2012, the day the Chevron refinery caught on fire.
How did the students react to the refinery fire? Was their response different from yours and your crew?
There was a lot of joking around about this traumatic event because it was certainly not the first time that’s happened. I remember a lot of the kids wondering if they were going to get “18 Money.” When the refinery caught fire a generation ago, everyone got checks on their 18th birthday from the refinery.
People were making jokes about how they didn’t bring their inhaler to school that day. But even that goes into a much darker story of environmental injustice. The asthma rates in Richmond are through the roof against national averages. One of the amazing things about this project was I went there to explore this artist and his universe and discovered an entire world.
Before you started production, what was your impression of the city of Richmond?
I knew that it occupies an interesting place in American history. It did build 90 percent of the Navy during World War II. I know that like so many cities across the country, including my hometown, Detroit, there is a real post-industrial decline. After the war, you see these industrial areas slowly shifting until they are left desolate with a lot of social justice issues. It’s one of the leading cities for green industry. But the world that this film lives in was the North versus Central turf war. That was what I discovered when I arrived.
Then I spent time with Molly and her students, and we developed our relationships with the students independently of Molly. They started inviting me into their lives. The deeper and deeper I got into these communities and the more relationships I built and the more connections I made, the more I wanted to show that life and the context that Donté is drawing from for this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, not just the social justice issues that exist in the neighborhood.
You achieve a great sense of ease and naturalism with the students.
We sat in the classroom every single day, hanging out, talking, laughing around with everybody, and then when something of interest would happen, we would pick up our equipment and start rolling. Our level of investment as filmmakers really showed to the RAW Talent students that this mattered to us. At a certain point, they stopped noticing cameras were even there and I think that’s when we started getting the best stuff.
The camera placement is particularly alive and fluid.
I have the advantage of working as a film editor. I’ve worked for a lot of amazing doc directors over the course of the last seven years. As an editor I get to see all of their footage. Usually, I’m the boom guy and I bring my friends who are really good cinematographers with me. They’re framing up a shot and that gives me a nice perspective to be in the room and look at it through my editing eye and say, “This is the space the scene exists in.”
How did working as an editor on the Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom inform your work on this film?
Some of the DNA of 20 Feet lives in Romeo. Obviously, they are very different movies -- but the way that we would showcase a musical performance in 20 Feet -- we tried to preserve that in showcasing the poetry of the RAW Talent students. We would choose to feature a poem and then structure an entire scene around the best way to contextualize this particular piece of poetry.
You include many establishing shots of Richmond, including public transportation, BART trains and stations. Any intentional references to Fruitvale Station?
Public transportation is just so much a part of the culture for the RAW Talent students that it would be disingenuous to not include that. In a more broad context, Oscar Grant and Fruitvale [are] so much part of the East Bay culture that I think it, yes, absolutely evokes that. All of the social justice issues that come into play for Oscar Grant, they come into play for Donté Clark and D’Neise Robinson and all of the students at RAW Talent. I didn’t shy away from that.
The film also includes interviews with officers from the Richmond Police Department.
After we gathered all of the footage, our main goal in assembling it into a film was to honor the complexity of the situation. In the context of this film, the systematic problems that exist in Richmond have developed since World War II. There’s got to be a paradigm shift in the thinking that goes into solving problems in this community. It was very important for us to be fair with the Richmond Police Department. They were incredible in giving us access to what they were doing and speaking honestly about it.
After being immersed in the cultural life of Richmond, are you feeling optimistic for the students and their future?
My takeaway after watching Donté go through this journey, when we capture him at a real crossroads and he’s experiencing growing pains as a community leader, these problems aren’t going to be addressed with a quick fix. And the power of the individual attacking the problem is, of course, limited, but it doesn’t reduce its value. There is still incredible value in him inspiring another generation of kids. Donté inherited a culture that’s based more on trauma and despair. But he found a way to turn that trauma and despair into inspirational artwork. His hope is that the generation that he is influencing will propagate that. And future generations can inherit a culture that is made of more poetry and beauty.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed.