Daisy and Max, Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s quietly heartbreaking film about a family torn apart by ill-conceived programs to quell gang violence, generated a lively discussion about the best approach to address youth violence. The best approach: Treat it as a public health problem.
The hour-long film, debuting on Al-Jazeera America Presents on October 25, was featured in CMSI’s Human Right Film Series. It tells the story of Daisy, a social worker studying for her Ph.D.; Max, her charismatic husband, who left a gang life to work in an innovative Los Angeles program to lower gang violence; and their new baby Sarah.
When the FBI breaks down their door in the middle of the night to arrest Max on an old charge, Sarah is spirited away by the FBI to use as leverage, and Daisy is left bereft and uninformed. The film follows the family down a winding road to repair and cope with what doesn’t really seem like justi
This was not the film Taylor intended to make; at a panel discussion afterwards, sje explained that she had chosen Daisy and Max as exemplary characters in a story about a successful violence intervention program. “But before we started filming, we got a call from Daisy saying that something terrible had happened,” said Taylor. This is the second film Taylor has made in which the FBI’s appearance dramatically changed the story.
The ethics of filmmaking became very complicated, she said: “We had to exercise extreme care and caution not to make things worse, because there was so much confusion.” The crew revealed their presence to law enforcement only after she got a lawyer who was making progress. “After I revealed myself as a journalist, things turned around quickly, but we don’t know if our presence made that difference. The filmmaker part of me wanted to be a lot more aggressive, but the human part of me thought, God forbid we endanger this woman any more.
“The assumption seemed to be that everyone in this neighborhood deserves to be under the control of the state. And the expectation of the folks in that community is that at some point in their lives they will fall under the control of the correctional system,” she said.
Identity and community.
Guillermo Cespedes, ex-deputy mayor of Los Angeles, who instituted an innovative violence intervention program by hiring 111 community members, most of them ex- or present gang members, to intervene in disputes, spoke about the tragedy of Max’s arrest and treatment.
The program, he said, was working well to dramatically lower youth and gang violence. He pointed out that most people in the community—perhaps 85%, perhaps much more--are not in gangs. Most gangs are young people, looking for identity, and the violence is typically about personal relationships, not drugs (most LA gangs are not in the drug business). “None of the gangs started out as criminal enterprises, but as groups to establish identity outside of your house,” he said. And most gangs are not connected with prisons. Community-based violence intervention worked well. The LA program is now famous world-wide.
But Max got caught up in a federal raid using a different logic—jailing everyone associated with gangs.
“I got to know Max very well. He was a really a standup guy who did some amazing work. Max really got caught in a perfect storm about the development of a practice that was brand new. I could not help him; I was forbidden by the mayor’s counsel even to write letters for him on his behalf.” Cespedes believes that the mayor’s office was afraid that Max’s arrest could jeopardize the whole program, but he really doesn’t know; most of the details of the case have been kept secret.
“We do need to find a viable structure way of hiring these men and women to help us slow the violence,” he said. They work, he pointed out, in the community and need to stay in touch with the very people who may be under federal surveillance.
“I look at Daisy and Max as an important story about work that none of us want to do,” he said. Daisy’s story to me is the story of hundreds and hundreds of women who are involved with guys who are involved or used to be involved or know someone who used to be involved. It’s a high risk relationship.”
Cespedes agreed with Prof. Carolyn Brown, whose films focus on Latino life and the border, that anti-immigrant sentiment figures into discrimination in the area. Carolyn Brown said that media representation affected public opinion as well: “We see members of Latino communities in mainstream media as criminals and members of gangs. Where are the stories of the at least 85% of the members of Daisy’s community who are not in a gang?”
“The idea that we can throw people in jail and we’ll be safer is a myth. Mass incarceration is not the answer,” he said. “We need to think of gang violence more as a public health problem than as a criminal problem. Think about what would happen if everyone with HIV or Ebola was put in jail. Looking at it through a criminal justice lens is to fill the jails with people who came out worse than when they went in.
“Why can’t we stop it? We did this with AIDS and smoking. Why can’t we deal with youth violence? We’re afraid of youth. We have to help our kids get through their adolescence. The film is really making a statement about public health. “