Plenty of documentaries like Waiting for Superman address the challenges facing public education; advocating change is one of the many things a good documentary film can do. Louder Than A Bomb, the rousing doc from co-directors and co-producers Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (nephew of deceased film critic Gene Siskel) sidesteps the policy debate and tells an inspirational tale pulled from troubled Chicagoland schools, both inner city and suburban. Without avoiding the reality of struggling educational standards or lower graduation rates, Jacobs and Siskel focus on the Louder Than A Bomb competition, the world's largest youth poetry slam founded by Young Chicago Authors in 2001. Just as the topic of public education is vast and complex, the Louder Than A Bomb contest is a massive undertaking that includes 600 teens from over 60 Greater Chicago schools practicing for months in preparation for the semi-finals. Siskel, Jacobs and editor John Farbrother wisely focus on four students and their school teams representing the diverse community that takes part in the contest. Louder Than A Bomb received enthusiastic responses from its hometown Chicago International Film Festival and many others from Cleveland to Philadelphia and Palm Springs. That's great news for Balcony Releasing as it opens Louder Than A Bomb in arthouses via a steady platform release throughout the summer. It will ultimately see a broadcast date later this year on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Each festival showing in different cities represents grass roots, word of mouth advocacy strong enough to drive an independent documentary into becoming a modest specialty success. With smart use of social media and collaborative outreach with various poetry and storytelling slams like The Moth in New York and Tielen in Cincinnati, Louder Than A Bomb has the chance to reach more than 30 markets and become one of Balcony Releasing's top performers.
Arguably the best creative decision Jacobs and Siskel make in the film is choosing their talented subjects. Nate Marshall lives on Chicago's far South Side, past the "L," and rises above his troubled neighborhood and limited means to inspire his fellow students at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Adam Gottlieb hails from a more comfortable background at Northside College Prep High School and channels his experiences growing up Jewish to write an incredible piece about the city's former Jewish enclave on Maxwell Street. Nova Venerable from Oak Park starts off the film as an angry, rebellious teen but transforms into one of the most caring of the Louder Than A Bomb performers, with a beautiful poem about caring for her autistic brother. Yet the shiniest stars of this intimate movie, the young poets who give the film its underdog spirit, are the team members of Steinmetz Academic Centre known as "The Steinmenauts." In the poets of Steinmetz, Jacobs and Siskel find all the inspirational elements needed to get audiences cheering: inner-city teens overcoming class and culture bias; a struggling school experiencing some much-needed academic achievement and a suspenseful finish as the "Steinmenauts" fight to make their way through the 2008 semi-finals via a powerful group poem called "Shooter."
Jacobs, Siskel and cameraman Stephan Mazurek stay true to traditional documentary filmmaking methods with handheld coverage of team meetings and plenty of face-the-camera interviews. Louder Than A Bomb is authentically bare bones: void of edgy graphics, animation or experimental photography. At times, some archival news footage of the ongoing struggles with many of Chicago's public schools may have been helpful to the storytelling. Yet. Jacobs and Siskel, who both have extensive background in cable documentary production, understand that their incredible young subjects make their film.
A more artful technique in the spirit of Exit Through the Gift Shop would have worked well with a topic as youthful and cool as poetry slams. Yet, when you have subjects as dramatic as the "Steinmenauts," it's enough to let the cameras roll and simply let them tell their stories.
Distributor: Balcony Releasing
Directors/Producers: Greg Jacobs, Jon Siskel
Running Time: 99 min
Release date: May 18 NY