Before I began making films, I worked as a teacher and therapist for children and adults with autism and other cognitive/mental health challenges. I worked with many different age groups and communities, from elementary school students with physical disabilities on Chicago’s west side, to adults with autism in South Pasadena.
One of the most important requirements of working with those populations is obtaining a certification in crisis management. In other words, I had to learn how to manage someone experiencing a mental health crisis in a way that kept them safe, kept us safe, and kept everyone around us safe. Through my years working in the field, I was involved in many of these types of situations; I saw them resolved smoothly and safely, and I saw them go terribly, terribly wrong.
My experience with crisis intervention is what initially stood out to me about the story of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. Chamberlain was a 68-year-old African-American retired Marine suffering from bipolar disorder. On the morning of November 19, 2011, Kenneth was sleeping alone in his apartment. Just after 5 a.m., he accidentally triggered the medical alert pendant he wore around his neck. A few minutes later, the police arrived to check on him. After Kenneth informed them through the door that he was OK and the alarm was an accident, the police refused to leave. A series of escalating arguments and verbal conflicts ensued and the police eventually broke down Kenneth’s door, tased him, pelted him with beanbags, and finally shot him to death.
After reading a short description of these events, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell –my experience dealing with crisis management had given me a unique perspective on these types of conflicts, and it’s one of the primary reasons I first reached out to the Chamberlain family, to not only express my condolences, but discuss the possibility of making a film.
While speaking with them, I knew I might be bringing up some extremely difficult subjects and unpleasant memories. I knew I needed to approach my conversations with Kenneth’s family members with sensitivity and respect. Working as a therapist and special educator also helped me in this area; I attended countless meetings with parents dealing with very difficult news about their child’s (or sometimes full-grown adult’s) psychiatric or physical state. I comforted sobbing children, calmed down adults with autism experiencing breakdowns, helped keep epileptic teenagers safe during seizures, etc. From the very first time we spoke, the Chamberlain family was nothing but helpful, enthusiastic, and supportive of what my producing partners and I were trying to do. What they wanted more than anything else was for their father’s story to be told.
As is the case with many films, principal photography for The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain was both a harrowing and deeply rewarding experience. Due to budgetary constraints, we shot the film at lightening speed in a tiny apartment building, with the oppressive humidity of August in Chicago. The cast and crew were nothing but professional and enthusiastic, despite the difficult working conditions. It was also very important to me that the Chamberlain family have a chance to visit the set. Though it must have brought back some very unpleasant memories, they seemed to understand that we wanted to tell their father’s story with the importance and weight it deserved.
Premiering the film at the Austin Film Festival is an experience I’ll never forget. The Chamberlain family was able to attend, and after the long journey through script, shooting, editing, musical score, sound mixing, color correction, VFX, etc., they were finally able to see their father’s story on the big screen. When the film ended, there were tears. Lots of tears. The mood in the room was raw, emotional, and heartbreaking. But through the tears, there was a sense of catharsis and validation for the Chamberlain family, and for every family who has experienced police brutality or institutional discrimination. Our whole team was honored that AFF gave the story such an incredible platform for our premiere, and we were particularly honored when the film won both the Jury Award for Narrative Features, as well as the Audience Award.
We’ve now had the opportunity to screen the film at several other festivals, and the reactions have been much the same: lots of tears, lots of hugs, and lots of thank yous. Our hope is that Kenneth Chamberlain Sr.’s story becomes even more widely known than it already is, and the Austin Film Festival has been a huge part of the film’s journey; we couldn’t have imagined a better place for the film to be seen for the first time.
I wanted that real story to be treated with beauty, humanity and humour, to pay tribute to what Paul Deschanel could have done, if the world hadn’t been so cruel.
– David Midell, writer/director of the winner 2019 Jury and Audience Award for Narrative Feature, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain