A documentary assembled from 20 years of raw home video footage. The title of the film refers to the neighbourhood this all takes place - just 17 blocks behind the US Capitol building. Through the eyes of nine-year-old Emmanuel, an ambitious soul and promising student, he captures the life he lives with his two older siblings and mom in Washington, D.C.
This family portrait starts with a flash forward, when we see an elderly woman getting out of a car and walking up to a house. She rings the doorbell and explains to the owner of the house how she grew up and lived most of her life in that particular house. As soon as she enters, she reminisces with the man of the house and breaks down in tears, saying it was all her fault, clearly scarred by events that happened in her past. We then go back 20 years in time to meet Emmanuel, who has just started recording his daily life with his own video camera.
Emmanuel lives with his older brother Smurf and sister Denice. You can tell he looks up to his brother, dismissing the fact he uses drugs on a daily basis. We later also find out his mother Cheryl is addicted to drugs and captures her passing out in bed. Emmanuel is a promising student, loves to read books and isn't getting in any trouble, although he's surrounded by it. He clearly knows what he wants from life and is determined to get there. Davy Rothbart's documentary skips almost 10 years, showing just how little has changed in this household - apart from a few additions to the family. Everything is going well for Emmanuel, until tragedy strikes and implodes the entire family.
17 Blocks paints a disturbing portrait of society. How could you not? We see violent behaviour on the streets of D.C., being captured by a child. Difficult topics get discussed as to how he's seen kids get shot at an outdoor basketball court. Despite all of this hardship, the house he grew up in was always filled with love. You can't help but smile, when you see an innocent boy just being happy and talk about his future goals. The impact of one life-changing event hits even harder, when you witness the despair and sadness seep into this family.
Rothbart's documentary doesn't judge, it stays purely human. Some of the time jumps are at times a bit confusing, not knowing how much time has past exactly and what has happened in the meantime. The aftermath of a tragic moment changes a lot, yet the core of this family is still filled with love, determined to change what went wrong and make each other proud. Nonetheless, this is one of the most extraordinary documentaries I've seen in a while. Bring tissues.
17 Blocks doesn't shy away from the harsh truth, the daily life and tragedies thousands of people go through in the US. The Sanford family invites us into their home, making us feel welcome while sharing in their love and pain. Both intriguing and striking, this family's story will linger on in my mind for a very long time.