Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel document Louder Than a Bomb | Interview
A.A. Dowd talks to Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, directors of the crowd-pleasing documentary Louder than a Bomb.
Ask Greg Jacobs about slam poetry and he’ll take you back to a weekend drive in winter 2005. “My wife and I were headed down Clark Street,” says the Chicago-based filmmaker, one half of the directing team behind Louder than a Bomb, a documentary that opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center Friday 4. “Outside of the Metro, there was this line of kids, all races and shapes and sizes. The marquee read, HIGH SCHOOL SLAM POETRY COMPETITION. It was a strange thing to see on a Saturday night on the North Side of Chicago. I mean, these kids were there to watch poetry.”
Jacobs turns to his directing partner, Jon Siskel, in their Ravenswood office space two weeks ago. “Is that something you remember going to do in high school?”
What Jacobs glimpsed through his windshield that night was the crowd for the final round of Louder than a Bomb, a youth slam-poetry competition, now in its 11th year, that’s put on every February by the org Young Chicago Authors. For their first collaboration, Jacobs and Siskel, both of whom have backgrounds in TV, spent almost three years researching, filming and promoting a feature-length documentary on the fest. The movie follows participating teams from four Chicago-area high schools and vastly different class backgrounds. The filmmakers point to the similar Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom as influences.
“Right from the start, we’ve just had these amazing reactions,” says Siskel, nephew of Gene. He recalls their first public showing—an educational screening for Cleveland high-schoolers, one night before the official world premiere at last March’s Cleveland International Film Festival. During the Q&A, a young man raised his hand. “On behalf of everyone here,” he said, according to Siskel, “that was the greatest true-story movie we’ve ever seen.”
Louder than a Bomb went on to win audience awards in Cleveland, Philadelphia and Austin. This past October, the film picked up both the Audience Choice Award and Special Jury Prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. Later this year, it will air on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
At a Columbia College showing in January, the crowd held its breath when Oak Park/River Forest’s Nova Venerable, the most candid of the competitors, delivered a confessional piece about her family. But the showstopper was “Counting Graves,” a group slam by the returning champions of Steinmetz High School, who won the competition in 2007. A call-and-response lament for the victims of gang violence, the poem inspired a midfilm ovation.
Siskel and Jacobs worked closely with festival cofounder Kevin Coval to narrow their focus from 46 participating teams to just four. “The movie has really been an amazing vehicle to grow the festival,” says Coval, who cites plans to start competitions in other cities and make LTAB a year-round event. “Beyond that, it’s a beautiful document of the spirit of the fest.”
Nobody embodies that spirit more than Adam Gottlieb, a poet from Northside College Prep. His first performance in the film, an ode to the power of poetry, is a triumph of acrobatic alliteration and sheer lung power. He’s just one among the film’s large cast of stereotype-confounding anti-types. “It was essential to us that people not walk out talking about ‘the Asian kid’ or ‘the rich kid,’?” Jacobs says. “These had to be real kids.”
Many of the “kids” have graduated and gone to college since the movie was shot in 2007 and 2008. Others are preparing for this year’s Louder than a Bomb festival, which runs from February 19 to March 12 and now accommodates 70 schools.
“Winning awards was never the prize,” Jacobs says of the film’s success. “To have the kids see the film, to have their families see it. To get these kids acknowledgment in the broader community. That was the prize.”
Louder than a Bomb runs Friday 4 through February 10 at the Siskel.