The uplifting and inspiring documentary film Louder Than a Bomb follows four Chicago high school teams in their journey to compete in the world's largest teen poetry slam, created by local nonprofit Young Chicago Authors that empowers youth through writing, publication and performance education.
The feature film begins at the start of the school year, six months prior to the slam competition. Each team must prepare at least five poems: four solo poems and a four-person group piece.
Says one of the young poets featured in the film:
"Writing a poem does not change the world. Learning about new people and understanding new people and really feeling inspired by people who are very different from you—I would like to say that that's changing the world. And if not, it's definitely coming much, much closer."
I chatted with filmmaker and co-director Greg Jacobs, from Siskel/Jacobs Productions, to talk about the power of poetry and the unexpected consequences of making a socially conscious documentary about it.
"We've never had this experience," Jacobs says, "of making a movie that makes a difference."
After the film made its television debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network on January 5, the filmmakers say they hope to "seed" Louder Than a Bomb competitions in cities across the country. You can support the film by spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook, host your own screening, buy the educational DVD for a school, join the mailing list, or donate to Young Chicago Authors to help launch LTABs in cities across the country.
What makes LTAB unique?
It's different than the way slams are typically done around the country. The idea is that you create a team in the school, and that team becomes a place where kids can be vulnerable around each other and train themselves to listen and edit and hone their craft. By the time they get to the actual event, they've already started to change. They're developing skills that they may not be able to in other ways.
This thing that they thought was a competition between teams starts to break down. It's a big bait-and-switch, where the competition dissolves and you realize it's this incredible community of people who are also there to write and listen and express themselves, but from places that you'd never know about in your city, because cities are so segregated.
They're hearing the reality of everyone's stories, and those stories turn out to be not wildly dissimilar.
In 11 years, there's never been a fight or incident at Louder Than a Bomb. You get this, "Wow-I-wish-the-world-was-like-that" feeling afterwards.
Starting the teams in the schools turns it into less of a competition-centered thing and more of a pedagogy, education-centered thing. In turn, it can change the culture of the schools. You've got these normal kids doing this cool academic activity, and they can go on and have success at this bigger competition. Other kids may be hanging out, just being in the room, and word gets out, and hopefully it becomes another accepted perennial club at school.
What makes poetry a powerful vehicle for social change?
In general, writing and expressing yourself in language is much cooler than it used to be when I was in high school because of hip-hop. Slam poetry or spoken word is a cousin to hip-hop. But canonical poetry—old school poetry—is the cousin that you hope doesn't come to Thanksgiving. Hip-hop is the cousin that you want to hang out with all the time. Because of that, kids can gravitate from writing rhymes to writing poems.
Louder Than a Bomb puts the experience of the kid outside the school inside the classroom. For a lot of kids, they've never had that before; school has no connection whatsoever to their lives. By starting with the question, "tell me about yourself," it gives them something to hook into and engage with, and that hook can pull them into other things academically.
Then there's another opportunity to express themselves, which is hugely therapeutic for a lot of kids.
Finally, it really requires a lot of active, empathic, attentive listening. It's a skill that people don't always have.
What was your intention for the film?
Our background is in TV documentaries, and you don't really get the chance to make a difference. In Louder Than a Bomb, there's a phrase: "The point is not the points; it's the poetry." In TV, the point actually is the points, it's the ratings.
During the making of the film, we just wanted to make an entertaining movie. We thought, if we can make it as entertaining as possible, people would come to it and the rest would take care of itself. It's like the Mad Hot Ballroom model—after that film was made, all this money was spent on ballroom dancing classes for middle-schoolers.
In reality, the response of the audience was so much more intense and emotional than we had experienced before.
We came to the realization that something we're doing as a documentary can really affect people.
We haven't done a feature documentary before. We had successful TV documentaries. 102 Minutes That Changed America was simulcast in more than 150 countries to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was seen by 25 to 30 million people. It's something we're incredibly proud of and is now being used in classes to introduce kids to what happened that day. But that's not a campaign; it's just a really fortunate by-product.
What is your outreach plan?
It's a three-pronged multi-layered thing: First, you start off in school with an educational DVD. The excitement that the movie generates will get teachers and kids wanting to do this and ask, "Why don't we have this in our neighborhood and our city?" Then, you use the curriculum and poems and film to get the kids writing about themselves and writing together. We've created this infrastructure now that allows cities to come to us and say they want to do this and we help them—through Young Chicago Authors—launch Louder Than a Bomb in their city. That's the third step.
The final step is that we're about to launch a youth poetry Ning network, a closed social network for youth poets. We've got this great Louder Than a Bomb community, but can we create this great feeling online? So that kids in Chicago can connect with kids in D.C. or Boston or Tulsa? And create the same type of incredible transformative community that you get live, so that kids can do this all year long? It's an experiment. Will they want to post themselves performing their pieces online? How will they react to each other? Can you keep it positive?
We're trying to find the cities that don't have the infrastructure right now. It helps when there's a critical mass of kids that want to do this, and teachers that are engaged in it, and the film lights the spark.
Do you have any requests for collaboration?
Eventually, we hope to make our money back for the film. If anybody has a huge golf tournament-sized check for the film, that would be awesome. You can also buy an educational DVD for a school; it makes a great gift. We also welcome donations to seed Louder Than a Bomb in other cities, or to support Young Chicago Authors.
What have been some of your most memorable filmmaking moments or reactions from the audience?
When you see the film, it's the kids in the film that are the stars. They're really inspiring and amazing.
At the Cleveland International Film Festival, in an auditorium of 250 Cleveland public school kids, this one kid stood up and said that, on behalf of the entire audience, "it was the best true story movie we've ever seen," and everybody burst into applause.
At one screening in Little Rock, Arkansas, one woman started to say how moved she was by the film. Waving her hands, she burst into tears, sobbed, walked away, and came back to finish her sentence.
After a screening that Chicago Mayor Emanuel introduced, a fourth or fifth grade girl said to [Young Chicago Authors Artistic Director] Kevin Coval, "I just want to know what it's like to have made something that inspiring."
The individual connections with people and creating real concrete institutions or events that are having an impact— it's just been successful beyond anything we've imagined.
Do you have any advice for aspiring benevolent filmmakers?
We started our film careers at a moment that was really different than it was now. The model then was that you show your film at the Sundance Film Festival and someone buys it for a million dollars and the rest takes care of itself.
It's now the Wild West and no one knows the best way to do it. It's all about creating your own path through all the tools now at your disposal. Think in terms of multiple distribution channels, multiple revenue streams. Start thinking about your publicity and outreach and social media the moment after you start thinking about the idea of the film. Most importantly, make a great story and try to tell it well.