The first festival film we had the pleasure of reviewing this year was brought by a talented young director with a bright career on the rise. A Tiny Ripple of Hope dives into the life of Jahmal Cole, the charismatic leader of the My Block, My Hood, My City organization that fearlessly fights against social injustice in a modern day Chicago. Jahmal spends his days working to help the city’s teenagers to find opportunities that they would not have without his help. It’s an urban tale of hope and shines a light on social polarization in a city long marked for its ruthlessness towards the African-American community. These are times that demand change, and Jahmal Cole is the one who lends a hand and makes people aware that there is yet much to be accomplished to support the families in need and this truth cannot be ignored. We had the chance to talk to Jason Polevoi, the director who made possible for this lovely story of progress to be brought to life, promoting A Tiny Ripple of Hope‘s Slamdance Film Festival debut!
A video is available at the end of this article, but we will leave here a transcript of the interview:
CineAddiction: Congratulations on your film!
JP: Thank you, it was a long time in the making!
CineAddiction: How and when did you find Jahmal and his cause?
JP: I became aware of Jahmal’s organization My Block, My Hood, My City back in 2015. I read a local news story here in Chicago about the work he was doing and, at that point, the organization had only been around for about a year or two, but I was really into it! I thought the mission was great and Jahmal is very charismatic, which you can tell by the film, so I was looking for a way to get more involved with the organization, and I was producing a show here in Chicago at the time, and I booked Jahmal and some of the teens in his program for the show, and we got talking afterwards, and I suggested making a documentary about him and the organization and some of the kids going through their senior year of high school.
CineAddiction: For you personally, what impact did the film have in your own life?
JP: Well, I mean, it’s been my life, my baby for four years at this point so… you know, it has shaped so much of my career trajectory. I was in TV for about ten years, and this is the film that pushed me towards being a documentary filmmaker, which is what I always wanted to do, and when the opportunity came along, it was sort of like: “It is now or never!”, so this film changed my life in a pretty significant way. And with that said, and also being around Jahmal for that much time, you can’t help having some of that rub-off on you a little bit. His message of making simple change in your own neighborhood and watching him ripple out across the city, that’s what I really tried to do in my neighborhood here in Chicago.
CineAddiction: Was it hard to be able to keep up with his busy life?
JP: Yeah! He’s busy and also he just kind of never sleeps too, so there would be calls and e-mails at like 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and I had a baby while we were making this film so most of the time I was actually awake with the newborn, but most of the time I was like “I’ll respond in the morning, I can’t wake up right now!”.
CineAddiction: It feels like you created a bond with the people surrounding Jahmal. Can you quickly remember a moment that got you emotional?
JP: I’ve seen this film so many times, but what still give me chills every time I see it is the speech that he delivers (that we call the Fireside Speech) and he has so much passion and whatever it was that was eating at his soul that night just came out and it’s so emotional and it’s so raw and it’s so real, and still, after seeing it a hundred times at this point, it still makes me shiver.
CineAddiction: What type of difficulties did you face as a filmmaker in bringing this film together?
JP: We made this film on practically no budget at all. It was a passion project from the very beginning and that’s difficult because I want to work with really great people who are interested in the subject and interested in filmmaking, but I couldn’t pay anyone.. and I certainly wasn’t getting paid! Everyone who worked in the film worked for free or for hopefully so money if we sell it, but that’s it: it wasn’t low budget, it was no budget!
CineAddiction: Do you think that without Jahmal’s efforts these teens would have the same opportunities they had with his help?
JP: No! Almost certainly no! You know, a professor from film school said to me: “I’m not exactly sure what Jahmal does specifically for these kids, but just the fact that he’s there and they can call him and he’ll show up whenever they need him is more valuable than anything else”. He understands them better than other people running non-profits in this city. The way to reach these kids is to just care and be a part of their life. Your role in their life doesn’t stop after they leave you, you now, you have to be there for them. I think his role in their life is instrumental in what they are today.
CineAddiction: By showing parts of Jahmal’s personal life and the struggles he faced, did you notice a change in his behaviour while filming?
JP: Well, Jahmal is complicated in that way. He is a public figure here in Chicago and he projects a certain persona, and it was really my job to, once we decided we were going to focus on some of the stuff in his personal life to break down that persona. He was always open but at the same time he said on a few occasions that he’s embarassed of some things that are in the film, and it’s not bad. He’s embarassed but it’s good that it’s there, because people see the struggle that humanizes him and makes this process real.
CineAddiction: There are so many people right now that need a Jahmal Cole in their lives. What would be your message for them?
JP: It’s the same message that would be wonderful to have a million Jahmal Coles, but we need to take responsability for our own communities, and at the same time, we need to care about people regardless of the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity. If something happens to those people, we need to care, just like they need to be cared if something happens to us, and when that starts to happen this is going to be a better planet.
CineAddiction: We are facing harsh times now and A Tiny Ripple of Hope couldn’t have arrived in a better time, with the pandemic and the riots in America. Do you think your film may bring some hope to the world right now?
JP: I certainly hope so! When we were making this film back in 2017, we had no idea what was coming. When everything started to happen with the pandemic, and Jahmal was a leader here in Chicago with the pandemic response, and then in the marches and the protests after George Floyd was murdered over the summer, since he was a leader in that world as well, we were wondering if we should continue filming… I think we decided to keep the film to this kind of compact, tight year, because we felt is was timely, regardless what we are seeing in that film is not going to diminish the value of it and the power of his message doesn’t changed based on what is happening in the world. It’s always going to be important and I hope people watch it and they see value in it and applies to their life in some way and they can take something from it.
CineAddiction: What are your current plans for the future? Any new projects in your mind?
JP: Yeah! We have a couple of projects upcoming, but I can’t say anything about them. They are very exciting! They are not necessarily similar to A Tiny Ripple of Hope, but we are excited to get back to work once this pandemic is all over.
CineAddiction: In your opinion, what are the best aspects of filming a documentary?
JP: It’s tough, I mean, it’s a necessity, I need it. It’s a creative outlet that, especially when we were in a lockdown in the early days of the pandemic, I was struggling that I had no outlet for my creativity. This is necessary for me, it’s essential. The whole process, I mean, I don’t like to wake up super early in the morning to go film when it’s freezing cold here in Chicago, but once you’re in it, and once you’re seeing it, it’s incredible! Seeing a world that you aren’t necessarily exposed to otherwise, that’s the best! That’s why you walk away, having taken something from the experience beyond just scratching that creative itch.
CineAddiciton: Are you open to direct some fictional dramas for instance?
JP: I’m open to anything, but my true passion is documentary!
CineAddiction: With the pandemic, people are consuming cinema and television in other forms. Do you think streaming is killing going to the movies?
JP: No. It’s certainly harder to watch a big ten pole Hollywood blockbuster film from your couch and get the same experience, but from my perspective in the documentary world, streaming has made documentary films exponentially more popular. I mean, we are the height of documentary popularity right now. It’s great! Especially because A Tiny Ripple of Hope is not necessarily a film that would got distribution in theaters and probably wouldn’t have a theatrical run. It’s a smaller film, quiet, thoughtful, so I think in that way, it’s really good for us.
CineAddiction: Do you think Netflix would buy it?
JP: I hope so!
CineAddiction: Do you keep in touch with Jahmal?
JP: Yeah! He is doing well. It’s a different relationship we have now, because we are not seeing each other every week and we are not talking on the phone every night, but he is still a friend and he’s still a confidant, and when I need him, he’s there for me in the same way he’s there for the kids, which is pretty amazing.
CineAddiction: Have you ever been in Portugal?
JP: I have not! Is that an invitation?!
CineAddiction: Yes! You should come to Portugal and bring your film here, because we need that! Do you know any festivals here?
JP: I have not applied my film to any festivals in Portugal, but basically we are not allowed to leave the country at this point so even a Canadian festival is out of the question, even if we wanted to be in one… so it’s hard, it’s a different landscape the festival circuit this year that it’s really ever been. It’s hard to navigate and it’s hard to do when it’s your first time doing it, but I would love to bring the film when we are free to travel again!
CineAddiction: We will wait for it! How did your family react to your film?
JP: They were frankly surprised because I’ve been working on it for so long that they were like “WOW, this is what you’ve been working on!”, and especially my dad finally saw the vision of what I’ve been working on for so long. It kind of gets to the point where the loved ones are like: “well, why not? Maybe he’ll finish it, maybe it’ll be good, maybe not, maybe it is just a learning experience for him”, but everyone’s really proud to see what it has become!
CineAddiction: Congratulations! You deserve it! Well, thank you so much for this interview! Best of luck to you and to your film, and keep in touch so you can come to Portugal one day!
JP: Thank you very much! I’ll give you a call when I’m on my way!
You can watch our interview on our video below: