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TNC Interview 2021

David Midell
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

Based on the true story of the events that led to the death of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., an elderly African American veteran with bipolar disorder, who was killed during a conflict with police officers who were dispatched to check on him.


Hi David, thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you help up during these very strange times?


My pleasure, it’s been good and bad, like it is for everyone, I think. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had anyone in my family get very sick from COVID, but I know many people who have and hopefully we will all be coming out of this soon and getting back to life. 


Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?


Absolutely, that’s been one of the silver linings. My partners at Redbird and I are developing several new projects and all this time has enabled us to get a lot more detailed in development than we would have been able to otherwise. 


Congratulations on the release of The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain; do nerves ever set in ahead of a film's release?


Thank you very much. Yes, nerves definitely set in, especially because the subject matter of the film is so timely and we are so divided as a society right now. But ultimately the film has been so positively received by festivals, critics, and audiences, that I’m confident it’s going to affect people the way we want it to. The biggest responsibility, my producing partner Enrico, who also plays a role in the film, and I feel is to the Chamberlain family themselves. They’ve been so incredibly supportive throughout the entire process and if they feel good about the film, then we feel good about it.


The response to The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain has been incredible winning multiple awards, why do you think this film has struck such a chord with audiences?


Yes, we’ve been very fortunate with the awards we’ve won at festivals. I think the film has struck a chord with audiences because it relates so strongly to the conversation about criminal justice reform going on in America today. Even before May of 2021, when George Floyd was killed, there was a very bright spotlight on policing practices, implicit bias, and the institutional discrimination that exists in our criminal justice system. I also think the film has resonated with audiences because they sense the enormous amount of heart that’s been poured into every frame. No one worked on this film for the money, everyone was involved because they wanted to be, and they truly went above and beyond to make the film what it is today.


What has it meant to you to get be a Someone to Watch Award Nominee at the 2021 Independent Spirit Awards?


I was very honoured to be recognized with the Someone to Watch Award nomination. The other nominees in my category are extremely talented filmmakers and the experience of meeting them, participating in the ceremony, and going through the whole process was amazing. 

When did you discover Kenneth Chamberlain Sr story and did you have any apprehensions about bringing such a powerful true story to the screen?


I first discovered the story in early 2017 while I was reading about other cases of alleged police violence and systemic discrimination. I felt a strong connection to this case in particular for a variety of reasons; the more I learned about it and the more I spoke with the Chamberlain family, I felt like this was a story people needed to know about. And yes, I think we all had apprehensions going into it, primarily because we knew that this wasn’t JUST a film. This was a human being, a man’s life, a family’s sense of safety and security. Enrico and I really felt that weight on our shoulders while making the film, but I think it pushed us to work harder, to really make a film that we, and the Chamberlain family, could be proud of. 


What was it about Kenneth Chamberlain that connected with you as a filmmaker?


There were many aspects of the story that I connected with, particularly because of my background as an educator, as well as being a person on the autism spectrum. Both being on the spectrum and working with individuals with disabilities and emotional/behavioural disorders, I’ve been involved in escalated situations, and I’ve learned how to approach those kinds of situations in a way that de-escalates the tension, rather than escalates it further. What stood out to me so clearly when I started learning about this case was how ill-prepared and misguided these officers were when it came to even show the most basic respect to Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., someone who not only was a person of colour but also lived in a low-income community and suffered from bipolar disorder.  


Why did you decide to shoot The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain in real-time and what challenges did this have for you and your team? 


It really made sense to me to present the film in real-time because the entire incident lasted for approximately 90 minutes, and I wanted to demonstrate how a situation like this can begin calmly and eventually spiral completely out of control. As tragic and horrible as these events are, I hope the film playing out in real-time can help audiences understand how something like this could happen, and what might be done to prevent something like it from happening in the future. There were definitely challenges that came with presenting the film in real-time as well. Because of the time of day the film takes place, the location had to start completely dark, like the sun was still down. Then, as the film plays out, the sun is gradually rising outside the windows, meaning our gaffer, DP, and camera department had to be extremely deliberate and careful when it came to figuring out exactly what time each scene was playing out, and where the sun would be at that given time. There were also challenges that came with keeping the action moving and keeping things interesting despite everything essentially taking place in two locations: the apartment, and the hallway right outside the apartment. 

After what has happened recently with multiple police killings of African-American citizens do you think it will surprise audiences that this true story is from 2011? 


I think what will surprise audiences is the way in which the situation plays out, and how a group of police officers can go from arriving at an elderly man’s apartment to check on his well being, to breaking down his door and shooting him to death. After the film plays out, there’s a short documentary we show where some of the real audio and video from the incident; the feedback we’ve gotten is that the documentary portion drives home the point that this actually happened, it’s no exaggeration, it’s not Hollywood hyperbole, this actually happened and hopefully, it will never happen again.  

"All of my projects, including the ones in development, now, have related somehow too vulnerable communities."


Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?


Ever since I was very young, I’ve always been completely enamoured with and fascinated by, film. Even though it wasn’t in my conscious mind until I was a little bit older, I would always be playing out little films in my head, imagining how a certain actor would play a role, reciting dialogue, etc. There are certain experiences people have watching a certain film that really instils a passion and fascination with it; there are a handful of films that I can recall exactly where I was, who I was with, what time of day it was, etc. while seeing the film for the first time. I think it was those experiences that really imprinted this passion on my heart. 


How much has your background as a therapist prepared you for a filmmaking career and has this background helped you in how you write/approach your characters?


Yes, absolutely. The perspective I’ve gained through working with the disability community and being a member of that community myself has probably informed my work more than I’m even aware of, but I think it’s helped push me towards telling stories about vulnerable people. All of my projects, including the ones in development, now, have related somehow too vulnerable communities. I like to ask questions about how people fit into society, and whether the systems we have in place really operate in those communities’ best interests.


Is there any advice you would offer someone thinking about getting into directing?


I would say just do it. Even if it’s a short film shot on your iPhone in your own home, just do it because that’s the only way you can really start to find and hone your voice as a director. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect, don’t worry if it doesn’t turn out the way you envisioned, that’s exactly how you learn. 


And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain?


More than anything, I hope audiences walk away from the film asking questions about how our criminal justice system treats vulnerable people, particularly people of colour, people living in low-income communities, and people living with mental health challenges. I don’t think there are easy answers to these questions; if there were, solutions would already be in place. But I hope people take those questions away from the film and engage in conversation about how these issues might be addressed.

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