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96 MINUTES – A LONG TIME IN LIFE

American filmmaker Aimee Lagos absorbed many of the confronting stories she heard while working at severely disadvantaged inner city schools – and was compelled to make a film based on them. She explains her motivation and approach in this Director’s Statement to her film, 96 Minutes – which can be a very long time in life.

You tell the stories you know. Or at least the ones you know you must tell. This film is a tapestry of stories that have touched my life – people I’ve known, places I’ve been, truths that have rocked me and moved me to want to expose them in a new light. Everyone has a passion project – one that they work for years to get made - 96 Minutes was mine. 

I went to a university that, although it was located in a major city, was very sheltered - tall stone walls surrounding perfectly manicured quads – an idyllic hilltop campus. While I spent most of my time in this cloistered world, I also spent a lot of time in some of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in the inner city doing after-school writing programs for kids and interning with the city’s neighbourhood stabilization project aimed at community empowerment. 

"stunning and utterly heartbreaking"

I loved the work I did and the kids I worked with, but the harsh reality of their day-to-day lives was stunning and utterly heartbreaking. Eleven and twelve year old children, whose smiles would light up your soul, were under immense pressure everyday to join gangs, traded stories of whose cousin got shot in which drive-by that week, laughed at me when I’d talk about the hope that someday they’d go to college. They laughed because they were all sure that by the time they turned 18 they’d either be in jail or they’d be dead – that was just the way it was. 

Those worlds I spent time in seemed starkly divided, until suddenly that all changed. A string of violent attacks rocked our campus community – armed assaults, carjackings, rapes, murder. The often very young kids that were committing these crimes were from the neighbourhoods I worked in – they easily could have been the kids I loved so much. It was a strange thing to think of that. The things that were happening to my friends and classmates were horrific and seemed like pure evil, but I knew the story was much deeper than that. 

The kids I worked with were hammered everyday with messages that told them that they were thugs, gang bangers - nothing more. This was who they were, who they were expected to be. Good kids, doing nothing wrong, just walking home would get accosted by cops – treated like criminals – all because of how they dressed, where they lived or the color of their skin. 

When the world treats you like you’re a no good criminal even when you’re not, and you’ve got no one giving you any sense of hope, it’s often just easier to become that criminal. We ask kids to make the right choices, but in order for that to happen, we have to actually give them a choice. 

"navigating their worlds and their struggles"

Writing the script I wrote about the things I’d seen, people I knew, stories they told me. I fell in love with each of the characters navigating their worlds and their struggles to survive their own pain. In directing the film, it was very important to me to tell this story from a place of non-judgment and impartiality – to expose the truths of these characters and the worlds they lived in. 

Authenticity was paramount. That perspective was one my cinematographer, Michael Fimognari, and I talked a great deal about in our planning of the shoot, choosing the multiple formats and shot-listing each scene. Stylistically, we wanted the camera to observe the characters, to be taken into their worlds by following them (often literally) into a scene. There was no traditional coverage as such in any of the scenes. The camera followed the action, panning between characters to maintain the kinetic sense of life unfolding in the moment right before our eyes. 

This film was a long time in the making and in the end was truly a magical coming together of an incredible and passionate group of people who all believed this was an important story to tell. For me, this is a film about four young people struggling to become. It’s a story about choices: the choices we face, the choices we make and ultimately the choices we give. In it’s own way, it’s a story for and about all of us.

Published September 13, 2012

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Aimee Lagos

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