Lying just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, MO is East St. Louis, Illinois, which has for some years held the tragic distinction as the city with the highest homicide rate per capita in the United States. The shroud which has mostly kept East St. Louis off the mass media spotlight despite its unwanted title is lifted in directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s new AT&T Audience Network documentary, Give Us This Day, which had an early sneak in New York just days after completing a final edit as part of AwardsLine’s screening series.
Give Us This Day tracks a year in the lives of three police officers and three residents living in East St. Louis, the city with the highest homicide rate in the United States. This documentary explores the humanity in each of these six lives as they intersect, develop and transform.
“Having the highest murder rate per capita was certainly something that caught our eye,” said Michael Zimbalist Sunday at the Tribeca Screening Center during a post-screening Q&A. “Peter Billingsley and Victoria Vaughn from Wild West Picture Show Productions teamed with AT&T Originals and reached out to us because they were interested in doing a cinema vérité-style documentary about the relationship between law enforcement and residents in high crime areas in the U.S. We shared an interest in going beyond the over-simplified portrayal of that relationship [often seen in] mainstream media and put in more of the complexities that are there.”
The filmmaking duo, who have received praise for their previous non-fiction work including Youngstown Boys (2013), The Two Escobars (2010) and Favela Rising (2005) found six subjects — three residents of East St. Louis as well as three law enforcement officers — that take the central leads in Give Us This Day, over the course of 2017.
“It took quite some time to find a community that would allow the kind of access [we wanted to get],” said producer Peter Billingsley. “It wouldn’t be worth it if police officers were only going to give the kind of spin they know [would make them look good]. The goal is really to put a human face to what’s happening. We wanted to go beyond the rhetoric. And [Jeff and Michael Zimbalist] did a tremendous job relentlessly pursuing a lot different areas until that access was granted.”
Incorporating gritty eyewitness footage of violence, tragedy, and hope, the documentary nevertheless unfolds with a cinematic quality that goes beyond the trappings of talking heads or re-enactments. The tension is palpable as the standoff between the police and suspects as well as a fearful populace takes a toll as the year breaks yet another record in the city’s murder rate.
“One of the biggest challenges of this production was that maintaining trust with [the community while contending with] the ingrained distrust that exists on both sides of the proverbial train tracks is there,” said Michael Zimbalist. “We’d have to come back and remind them of what our intentions are and also to remind them of why they were interested in doing this in the first place… It was a constant effort.”