Henry Green, in I Am Shakespeare: The Henry Green Story

Double Feature

Please silence your cell phones.

Tonight, this year’s New Haven Documentary Film Festival, founded and administered by area practitioners, begins an 11-day run of compelling, often locally relevant and almost always free features, shorts and workshops too numerous and layered to convey in full. So we’re zooming in on two features screening during the first days of the festival, like a tight shot that comes before a cut to wide.

* * *

“‘Listen, if you shoot him, put two in his face. This gun is long but it’s not that powerful. So if you shoot him one time, it’s not gonna kill him.’ He said that to me like it was good advice. Gave me a little pat on the shoulder, like he just taught his son how to ask a girl to prom. I think I was 15 when I bought that gun.”

Those are the opening lines of I Am Shakespeare: The Henry Green Story, and they set a scene alright. Screening tonight at 7 at the Whitney Humanities Center (53 Wall St, New Haven), the feature-length documentary, directed by Stephen Dest and starring Henry Green (screen-capped above), a young local black man who grew up poor and preoccupied, quickly sets other scenes, like that of Newhallville, Green’s home neighborhood, where walking into a corner store on rival turf—with factions often determined, seemingly arbitrarily, by home address—can get you mugged, stabbed or shot. Then there’s Yale down the road, where, as Green says, “everyone has a Starbucks cup and a peacoat on,” and where, in front of a heavy, carved, mahogany-brown portal, he stares into the camera—before the backdrop switches, and Green is back in Newhallville, in front of a crusty door painted in powder blue cover-up, still staring into the camera.

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That’s about two minutes in, and by then I was hooked. For the next 75 minutes, over the sounds of an electric guitar spitting bluesy lines, Green discusses issues of poverty, crime and education in such an honest and perceptive way that it could have the power to cut through the biases and resentments that usually block ideopolitical improvement.

Within 10 minutes, it’s clear Green is a stage actor with prospects. That’s his escape route, his “fix,” even if he didn’t always recognize it. But when it comes to this film, he’s clearly not acting. For one thing, what he’s saying is too potentially self-damaging. The whole exercise is too risky to be false.

And it’s a risk for which he should be rewarded. Honesty’s the best policy in documentary filmmaking, but more importantly, it’s the medicine our broader spin-infected discourse desperately needs.

* * *

It’s a topic that screams like an ambulance for a documentary treatment: a volunteer company of emergency medical responders staffed and run almost entirely by high schoolers.

Filmmaker Tim Warren obliges with High School 9-1-1, a study of EMS Post 53, the town of Darien’s only ambulance service, which the film says fields more than 1,500 emergency calls a year. Showing tomorrow night at 7, also at the Whitney Humanities Center, the movie begins calmly, with some stage-setting and text interstitials, before plunging us into the interior of an ambulance during an emergency response, where the seasoned kids are calmer than the agitated camera work.

One of the adults involved, Susan Warren, describes the organization’s setup as a “guided democracy,” where a handful of grownups provide the guidance but the teens, of whom there are about 80 at any given time, make the decisions. A 17-year-old senior named Chris, who wears braces on his teeth and was Post 53’s vice president of operations at the time of filming, puts it this way: “The students do run the organization. We’re the government. The adults have no vote in anything… There’s a huge responsibility that comes with it.”

A huge sacrifice, too. Each volunteer goes through about 155 hours of intensive training and testing to start and, as VP of training Meredith, also a 17-year-old senior, notes, the service is on call 24/7, 365 days a year. Sarah, a 16-year-old senior and Post 53’s president, says she “can’t tell you how many times” she’s had to get up in the middle of the night to respond to a call. (Her mother, Jenny, expresses pride but laments how many family dinners her daughter’s had to miss.) 17-year-old Anthony, 53’s secretary, is shown jumping both out of bed and out of class at the trill of his emergency pager.

A get-out-of-class-free card might sound like a benefit of volunteering, except the teen responders aren’t given “any type of credit or leniency,” Anthony says. Not officially, at least. But the teachers and administrators interviewed for the film are as supportive and admiring as you’d expect.

The documentary enmeshes the natural drama of an emergency response operation with small-town innocence, delivering serious insight and inspiration along the way. And if you’ve bought into the oft-circulated notion that Millennials are especially lazy, selfish and entitled—or if you’re a Millennial who happens to fit that bill—High School 9-1-1 is like an emergency call at 3 a.m.: it’ll probably wake you up.

New Haven Documentary Film Festival
June 1-11, 2017
First Screening: 7pm tonight at the Whitney Humanities Center – 53 Wall St, New Haven (map)

Written by Dan Mims.

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