New documentary profiles Lucy Laney and its leader

“Love Them First,” a KARE11 documentary by Ben Garvin and Lindsey Seavert, opens at the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Film Fest on April 13.  Photo courtesy of Ben Garvin / KARE11

“Love Them First,” a KARE11 documentary by Ben Garvin and Lindsey Seavert, opens at the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Film Fest on April 13. Photo courtesy of Ben Garvin / KARE11

By Cirien Saadeh | Staff Reporter

On April 13, Love Them First, a KARE11 documentary, will premiere at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. The documentary profiles the work happening at Lucy Laney at Cleveland Park Community School (3333 Penn Ave N), to move the school off the “failing school list” through the eyes of its Principal, Mauri Friestleben, and other school community members.

The film was directed and reported by Ben Garvin and Lindsey Seavert. Garvin is a photojournalist at KARE11 who co-directed the documentary alongside Seavert, a reporter and storyteller at KARE11. They chose to work on the project after having had separate interactions with Friestleben and the Lucy Laney community while reporting on other stories.

“Through my daily work as a journalist at KARE11, I met Mauri on an assignment when there was a shooting in North Minneapolis near the school. She got on the intercom and just said to the children, ‘this was scary and this was real and I am sorry and my heart is broken.’ She was absolutely unflinching and honest with the children in a way that blew me away. I thought she had such a powerful voice, that she was honest and raw, and I wanted to be around that and I want to learn more about her. That was part of the reason we started the work,” said Garvin.

Filming of what would eventually become the documentary began during the 2017-2018 school year, and according to Garvin and Seavert, it required a lot of trust-building with the Lucy Laney community and the Northside.

Lindsey Seavert (left) and Ben Garvin (right).  Photo courtesy of KARE11

Lindsey Seavert (left) and Ben Garvin (right). Photo courtesy of KARE11

“The media has a history of not really doing good work in North Minneapolis. It reduces a really complex part of our world to storylines about crime or whatnot. And we knew that we had that history behind us when we walked into that building and that skepticism was built into the way people saw us. We told people right away you just are right to be skeptical. Give us some time, let us do a couple of stories and then tell us what you think,” said Garvin. “And we also recognize that Lindsey and I are both white journalists. We live a privileged life, and we're doing a story about a mostly Black population and we had to be conscious of that going in.”

Garvin and Seavert’s initial plan was not to make a documentary. They planned to embed at Lucy Laney for a year in order to create 15-20 news stories. The documentary was a result of that reporting.

“When we came to [Friestleben] with this idea, she had every reservation, and she had every right to those reservations, but I think we proceeded with caution, and we gained trust story by story. I think through showcasing our willingness to be uncomfortable, to listen, to understand,  and to be authentic and through time we sort of became entrenched and immersed in the school culture for a year. And we became part of it, so much so that they stopped noticing Ben's cameras and they would willingly sit down for our cameras,” said Seavert.

According to Friestleben, allowing KARE11 into the building was initially disconcerting, as school administrators worried about both the stories that would be told and audience reactions.

“I know we had a good understanding, as a staff and families, that we could say this is enough. I’m very protective of my community and I did not want my school or community to be exploited. I did not want it to be about this deprived and depraved Minneapolis school. We were up front about that, but that point never came,” said Friestleben.  “With every story, with every interaction, [Garvin and Seavert] approached it with humility and compassion and a desire to understand. There were times when I thought: I don’t know how that is going to be received, but it is what it is.”

Intentional decisions were made in the filmmaking to make sure that students were comfortable with the presence of the cameras and student voices were highlighted throughout the documentary as they discussed their school, their neighborhood, and their community.  

“Students loved the cameras and microphones. They loved it. They were so funny. Even to this day they believe they are celebrities. Ben would say, ‘let them touch the camera,’ and he gave the older kids little cameras and taught them about lighting and good audio. We told the kids what an honor it was to have people who want to show us in our true environment and our true selves. The kids love seeing themselves on TV,” said Friestleben.

Additionally, Seavert made the decision to not narrate the documentary, which is largely atypical of both journalism and documentary filmmaking. Instead she says she sought to make sure that Northside voices were prioritized in the film-making. At times, Friestleben interviews her own students; at other points, students and faculty speak directly to a camera.

Much of the documentary comes across as biographical, with community members, like Friestleben and the school’s former Student Council President Sophia seeing themselves through the Lucy Laney community and vice versa. Garvin and Seavert also work to deconstruct a lot of the typical Northside stereotypes, by providing space for Northsiders to speak up about stereotypes and narratives, as well as their own school.

“You can always find light in the darkest places. Like in Pandora’s Box, you may have released the evil around you, but there is always that little spark of hope, your bright light, your beacon,” said Sophia, a Lucy Laney graduate and former Student Council President, in the documentary. Sophia’s last name has not been included as she has an open adoption case.

The documentary premieres on April 13 at the Capri Theatre at 3pm, with additional showings at the film fest through April 25. More details on documentary screenings, alongside the film’s training, can be found on the website for the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Film Fest. Additional screenings are being planned for the Lucy Laney community, but no details have been confirmed yet.

Cirien Saadeh