An unscripted saga of city life

By Frazier Moore AP TV Writer | 3/14/2014, 12:28 p.m.
When President Barack Obama spoke out last week against the crime, violence and poverty that ensnares young men of color ...
This image released by CNN shows Elizabeth Dozier, center, principal of Fenger High School in Chicago a scene from the CNN documentary, “Chicagoland.” The 8-episode series airs on Thursdays at 10p.m. on CNN. AP Photo.

Then, a few moments later, the camera re-encounters Thomas shortly after her boyfriend was gunned down in front of her.

"I just fell to the ground and balled up,’’ says Thomas, who, when she got up, found him dying.

"You happen to be down the street and a shooting happens,’’ Levin recalled last week at the Manhattan production offices of Brick City TV. "You end up on the porch of a family, talking to them, before even the authorities are there.’’

"It’s hard when you’re trying to focus and you have tears in your eyes,’’ said Benjamin, who recounted his filming the funeral of a local man who had served in Iraq and then, returning to the 'hood, was shot in the back. "You can’t believe you’re seeing this.’’

But not all of "Chicagoland’’ is grim. Chicago’s beauty, brio and, a few El stops north, its prosperity are also part of this saga.

"This is a tale of two cities,’’ said Laura Michalchyshyn, another of the series’ executive producers and president of the partnering Sundance Productions. "That’s been a big challenge: finding a balance between both kinds of stories.’’

The first step in the storytelling process, according to Benjamin: "Overshoot.’’ He said three film crews, one led by him, were deployed in the Windy City for much of last year, amassing 1,000 hours of video. (And they still haven’t wrapped: As recently as Sunday, "Chicagoland’’ cameras caught Emanuel’s icy dip in Lake Michigan as he made good on his pledge of a "Polar Plunge’’ if the city’s children read 2 million books.)

But from that vast trove, how could anyone identify the key narratives and personalities?

"You take the footage into the editing room as late into the night as possible, when you’re about to fall asleep,’’ said Levin. "Then, when something you see really opens your eyes, you know that’s the beginning.’’

From beginning to end, "Chicagoland’’ is certain to open its audience’s eyes.