Wisconsin Film Festival Features The
Blood Is at the Doorstep
The Dontre Hamilton Story
|The Blood Is at the
Doorstep follows Dontre
Hamilton’s family (top) in
their evolution to
Erik Ljung (above) is the
producer and director of
work has been featured by The New York Times, CNN and other outlets. He had done a piece for Vice News about the Corey Stringley
case that was produced by Spencer Chumbley that made him more aware of social-justice issues. And then Dontre Hamilton was shot
and killed in Red Arrow Park near the Pabst Theater where Ljung had worked.
“I think that there were 14 shots is what shocked me and a lot of other people right off the bat,” Ljung said in a phone interview. “And
the fact that the police came twice to check on Dontre and determined that he was doing nothing wrong, so what happened this third
time? There are a lot of questions that weren’t being answered. I think right off the bat, the police department had the leverage of
setting the narrative and you really didn’t hear a lot from the family early on. The police department was kind of scapegoating this as a
mental health issue right off the bat, blaming this whole incident — and taking no responsibility — on this ‘violently, mentally-ill man.’ I
was interested to hear more about the Hamilton family. I was hearing a lot of things on line about the family that I thought needed
clarification. And so I was pretty much engaged from the day it happened. I was reading the news a lot and thinking, ‘Someone should
tell the story more fully. This is an important story.’”
Ljung had a cousin who had experienced mental illness and so he understood the complexity of the situation and the issues. He kept
abreast of the developments in the case and when Hamilton’s family publically surfaced to talk about the shooting and the issues,
Ljung approached them about filming their story. He didn’t really know what the result would be. But he felt the need to document what
was going on.
“I think deep down, I didn’t want to admit to myself about making a feature-length documentary,” Ljung said. “Tackling a story like this
is a huge responsibility. You are taking on a real family’s story. And this might be their only opportunity to tell a nuanced, whole
exploration into who they are and their fight. It’s terrifying as an individual filmmaker working largely solo on the spot. It’s a huge
By Jonathan Gramling
The beauty of the Wisconsin Film Festival, being held April 5-12 at AMC
Madison 6 Theaters and several UW-Madison locations is that it not only
highlights the thriving Wisconsin film industry, but it also brings films to the
general public that have stories that are poignant and are well-crafted. It brings
out stories and issues that would not otherwise be shown in a Hollywood film
with a large theatrical release.
For example, The Blood Is at the Doorstep, produced and directed by Erik Ljung,
tells the story of the family of Dontre Hamilton and their evolution from an
everyday family to community activists. Hamilton, an unarmed African American
young man with mental health issues, was shot 14 times by a Milwaukee Police
Officer in a Milwaukee park after two other officers had deemed Hamilton not a
risk to others in the park.
Ljung, a freelance director of photography had pursued love from his native
California 10 years ago and stayed in Milwaukee after the love was gone. His
burden to take on. And I think I was kind of telling myself I was just documenting, not to make a film, so that there is evidence, someone bearing witness to what is
happening in Milwaukee. I really felt during the whole process that something historical was happening in Milwaukee. This is something that will be talked about in
15 years. We’ve been having a 15-year housing marches remembrance in Milwaukee over the past year. And I think 50 years from now, people will still be talking
about Dontre Hamilton and what happened here in Milwaukee. It’s kind of a landmark. It’s about the only case like it in Milwaukee. But it’s in people’s consciences
here. It drew a lot, in part, from the Hamilton family’s persistence and what they were able to accomplish. I was really just trying to hang on and keep up with the
While the film is centered on the Hamilton family and their evolution, Ljung also sought out other parties to the tragedy to gain their perspectives on what transpired.
“We did a pretty long sit down interview with Chief of Police Edward Flynn,” Ljung said. “We dug deep down about police training. We did a ride along with the
police. We did an interview with the police union president as well. We interviewed the district attorney, John Chisholm. We interviewed Representative Chris
Taylor, who will be partaking in the Q&A with us at the Wisconsin Film Festival. So we talked to policy makers. We talked with people directly involved in this case.
We had a wide breadth of access. We interviewed some of the Starbuck’s employees, one was the individual who called the police on Dontre that day. And we
talked to that person’s co-worker that day. We talked to a couple of other people who didn’t necessarily view the shooting, but they saw the interaction with Dontre
shortly before the shooting. We did talk to people who were there that day.”
Keeping a certain level of journalistic integrity and objectivity were important to Ljung.
“Making a documentary is a little bit different than journalism,” Ljung said. “You’re working very closely with people for an extended period of time. That’s not to say
that it’s a biased piece that we made. But you do grow close to the people whom you are working with. But I probably wouldn’t have been taking this down if I didn’t
think that people were telling me the truth and I didn’t believe in what the people were doing. But I think everyone in the film is strong. We’re not taking anyone’s
words out of context in the film. We’re letting everyone make their main points in the film. I don’t think we are misrepresenting anyone. And I don’t think anyone
comes off perfect in the film either. I think we did a fair job of representing everyone’s point of view.”
Eventually Ljung realized that he was doing more than documenting. He had enough material for a full-length feature film.
“I think we had 400-500 hours of footage,” Ljung said. “I think making a documentary was always the plan. I just didn’t want to terrify myself with the enormity of it. I
was lucky enough to have Michael Vollmann, my editor, wanting to be involved in the project. He felt strongly about the issues at play. He looked at some of the
footage and was really proud of the Hamilton family. He donated his services and signed on. He is probably the best editor in the city of Milwaukee and even the
Midwest and beyond. It was great having him involved in the project and keep it going.”
And keep it going he did.
The Blood Is at the Doorstep has won a lot of recognition. It was recognized at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the SXSW 2017 Film Festival 2017 Maryland
Film Festival. It will be shown on April 7, 1:15 p.m. in the Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall followed by a Q&A session with Ljung, members of the Hamilton family and
State Rep Chris Taylor.
For ticket information and show times of The Blood Is at the Doorstep and other Wisconsin Film Festival features, visit 2018.wifilmfest.org.