Film goes to West Side looking for roots of gun violence, and solutions

Documentary ‘Raised Up West Side’ begins streaming Tuesday, accompanied by soundtrack of artists from the region.

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“Raised Up West Side” visits the Cook County jail garden, where people in custody learn new skill sets.


Like many Chicagoans, Brett A. Schwartz was concerned about the city’s gun violence and assaults. But rather than just talking about it with friends and family, the Emmy-nominated filmmaker decided to find some answers by making a documentary about the crisis.

The resulting film, “Raised Up West Side,” played at nearly 30 festivals nationwide and launches Tuesday on streaming, digital HD internet, cable and satellite platforms through Freestyle Digital Media. Also debuting Tuesday is its accompanying soundtrack, featuring numerous musical artists and rappers from the West Side. 

“It felt important to me as a storyteller and filmmaker to jump into this and try to tell the story behind the story of what most people are asking about Chicago, and that’s, ‘Why do these things happen?’ ” explains Schwartz. “My effort is to look at some of the conditions that lead to gun violence and other issues by focusing on the West Side, revealing the re-entry efforts helping released ex-offenders, and exploring food deserts as it affects mainly Black residents on the West Side.” 

As a white outsider to the troubled community, Schwartz had to put his bridge-building skills to work in order to earn residents’ trust. He enlisted community organizations to help him get the word out, and also found that old-fashioned hanging out and word of mouth, “as the people I talked to told another, and they told another,” was key.

“That’s one of the joys of doc filmmaking — entering the spaces to tell stories that illuminate yourself and can do that for others that watch it,” notes Schwartz.

A Windy City Harvest organization was the most helpful to him as he sought subjects for the filming from 2018 to 2020. The group has had great success teaching ex-offenders and other residents how to circumvent their food desert by growing plentiful produce using hydroponics. The participants learn valuable job skills that can help them earn good-paying jobs.

One example of how the storyline changed dramatically due to unforeseen events was his portrayal of Darius, a man who was sentenced to maximum security prison for carjacking at age 17 but was trying hard to live straight since his release. When the 2020 protests turned into riots, he suffered PTSD and wound up moving to Maryland to restart.

“I had to fly out to Maryland to show his new life,” says Schwartz. “My effort was to humanize characters and avoid tropes as much as I could. I really wanted to build empathy for people who did things that are pretty difficult.” 

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