More to Come …

THE BARRIO SPEAKS: Voices of Southwest Detroit from Joel David Silvers on Vimeo.

THE BARRIO SPEAKS: Voices of Southwest Detroit … Aired on WTVS/Channel 56 (PBS Affiliate) on 6/2/1992; Joel Silvers – Executive Producer / Project Director / Camera & Editing; Vincent Calles – Student Producer / Editing.

One of my major concerns as a filmmaker has not only been to tell the stories of people and communities not often represented within the programmed framework of mainstream broadcast media, but also to teach and convey technical skills that will empower underrepresented people and communities to tell their own stories in their own way. “The Barrio Speaks” is thus a prime example of my early experiments with this type of “community-based” film-making. Produced with a crew of inner city Detroit public high schools students, this documentary also represents an early example of my personal philosophy of teaching – which is a “holistic” (or interdisciplinary) experiential approach that might be called “a classroom without borders.”

“The Barrio Speaks” centers upon Vincent Calles, a nineteen-year-old Latino student of mine at the time the film was made, as he explores the neighborhood where he lives – a predominantly Mexican area of Detroit often called “The Barrio.” Vincent takes us on a journey through a uniquely thriving, often vulnerable Latino community within an otherwise predominantly African-American city that has become increasingly dominated by vast stretches of abandoned structures and empty fields. This journey introduces several of the beloved individuals and key institutions within this spirited community during the time the film was made, and as such, the film may serve as a valuable documentation of Detroit during the early 1990’s. Through this film, moreover, we begin to glimpse how this little-understood Latino community has struggled to maintain itself in the face of massive urban social problems, political indifference and the large-scale transformation of Detroit’s old industrial base. What we also obtain is a better understanding of how this struggling ethnic community is built upon a solid foundation of ethnic pride and is composed of diverse individuals who, each in their own way, articulate the concept of “community.”

In the end, not only does Vincent’s journey during the making of this “community-based” documentary provide a rare portrait of this unique, largely immigrant section of Detroit during the early 1990s, but it also becomes a document of Vincent’s journey toward self-discovery and appreciation of his own cultural heritage. We the viewers thus receive a better understanding of how one young person comes to terms with his ethnic identity within the complex context of our country’s cultural diversity. At the same time, we also receive a sense of an alternative and a glimmer of hope for one of our country’s struggling urban areas.

At the time “The Barrio Speaks” was produced in 1991-92, I had become deeply immersed in the design and teaching of an innovative media arts curriculum offered by the Detroit Public Schools to high school age students from across the entire city. As there were few, if any, school curriculum of this nature at the time I began my teaching career in the mid-1980s, I had to conceive of a “performance-based” curriculum where no models existed and which both met with the rigid guidelines of a public school system and yet truly inspired students who were frequently alienated from the learning process.

What eventually evolved was a program in documentary film production in which students became engaged with documenting the city and the communities in which they lived in. Students thus learned how to identify significant topics, rigorously formulate focused angles and otherwise ask probing questions about their immediate world – its ethnic and cultural composition, its major economic and political concerns, its social and natural ecology and its history. This special curriculum, moreover, became an extension of my own documentary concerns and philosophy, and what resulted were a series of compelling documentaries produced along with the young people I taught – some of which were aired on Detroit’s PBS public television station, WTVS, (e.g., “The Barrio Speaks: Voices of Southwest Detroit”; “Educating the Soul”; and “All the World’s a Stage.”)

The last twelve years of my teaching have been spent with the Department of Communication at Wayne State University in Detroit, and one especially rewarding aspect of this period has been opportunities to build upon early experiences producing “community-based” documentaries as represented by “The Barrio Speaks.”




DETROIT STORIES: former City Council President Charles Pugh – excerpts from Joel David Silvers on Vimeo.

In the fall of 2006, Joel Silvers and three of his advanced editing students – Stephen Black, Jeantia Bush and Ashley Docherty – launched an oral history project that they called “Detroit Stories” under the sponsorship of the Wayne State University Office for Undergraduate Research.

Modeled after the National Public Radio project called “Story Corps,” this project captured hundreds of hours of interviews with a diverse range of people from the Detroit Metropolitan Area on their family histories in Detroit.

These interviews focused upon the immigrant experience and how people’s families arrived in Detroit over the past one hundred years. The Wayne State interviewers then asked about why the immigrants stayed and what eventually made this dynamic city their “home.”

The ultimate objective of this ambitious project was to build a large historical archive on one of the world’s most important urban and industrial centers during the years of rapid growth and expansion.

Among the many dozens of individuals who were interviewed for the Detroit Stories Project was Charles Pugh, a well-known television news anchor at the time. Mr. Pugh made a strong positive impression on the Detroit Stories interviewers, and he touched upon many topics of personal concern during this interview – including: his thoughts on Detroit’s vibrant and diverse cultural scene, affirmative action, gender equality, gay marriage and the city that he so deeply identifies with.

Mr. Pugh was subsequently elected as the President of the Detroit City Council in 2009, but in 2013, he made news when he mysteriously disappeared from view for nearly a month and then abruptly resigned from office in September of that year. As of October 2016, he is awaiting trial on charges of criminal sexual misconduct.