We talk to Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, the directors of Check It , a new documentary that follows several members of the inspiring gay and transgender teen gang Check It through their struggles on the harsh streets of Washington, D.C. Check It members Moe and Tray also weigh in.
The essential new doc Check It follows several members of the inspiring gay and transgender teen gang Check It through their struggles on the harsh streets of Washington, D.C. Because their community is plagued with violent prejudice, they formed an often violent gang to protect themselves and promote their message of acceptance.
During the HotDocs Film Festival in Toronto, I sat down with directors Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, as well as participants Moe and Tray, for a very candid conversation about their experience making the film and the social movement the film has created to help this marginalized group of youth in the United States.
Seventh Row (7R): What brought you to Check It and why did you feel it was an important group to document?
Dana: We had done the Nine Lives of Marion Barry, Toby and I, so we had spent a lot of time in more troubled neighbourhoods of DC.
We were working on another project and that brought me to Moe. Moe said, “You got to meet this gang.” Then I called Toby and told him about it [and] we saw the kids. We were just utterly blown away. I don’t think it happens a lot of times in life, [where] you found a treasure. These kids [are] magically charismatic. They’re so resilient. They’re funny. They’re joyful and yet their lives could be very dark.
Toby: A lot of people consider LGBT as vulnerable and unable to protect themselves. Here, we’re flipping that script. We felt this was a new way to look at this world. You see that these kids are the most marginalized of the marginalized. They’re invisible. I mean, they trick a mile and a half from the White House.
7R: I’ve done a lot of research into sex work and prostitution. Was there an opportunity to talk to the clients? Were you interested in exploring that perspective?
Dana: We didn’t really think about that. We were really interested in [Check It’s] stories and their point of view. We saw them. They’re out there.
Toby: We were following [Check It’s] lead. Every day, we were learning more about their lives. It took a long, long time for them to allow us. We never pushed, never cajoled. We just had to be — we were totally on their yo-yo. We were dictated by what they were comfortable with. And when they were alright, the cameras can come out, then we just laid back.
7R: The perspective of the camera was very much in their world. They were leading the action. It felt like they were very much talking to a friend.
Dana: We wanted it to be their voice.
Toby: And their way [and] in their direction.
Dana: It took us almost four years to make this film. We were with them from early morning, five in the morning, for months and months and months at a time. My kids go to school with members of the Check it. We are very intertwined in a deep and profound way. We love these kids. I think they saw that we were not going anywhere. There are only two speeds with them. They’re on or off. When we were in, we were in. They’re very expressive once they feel comfortable. And they felt totally comfortable [with us].
Toby: For four to six months, we’d try to go see them with no camera, just to hang out and get to know them. Lots of people in their lives have let them down, disappointed them — parents, adults, church members, teachers. People were saying they’re going to help, come back maybe once, maybe twice. Then they would just bail. Because they’re a handful, okay. So they were testing us, for months. Even when they said, “Okay, you can bring the cameras out.” One day [they’d] say, “meet us here”, and they wouldn’t be there. They’d say, “Nah, we couldn’t make it.” They would literally run from us. At times, they would see us and say, “Go, go!”
7R: You’re dealing with teenagers, too, which is an added unexpected element.
Toby: That’s the thing. No matter where you are, you’re a teenager, [so] you’re erratic. You’re all over the place. These guys have times that by 15. That’s one of the things we really wanted to capture. Not so much a black film or a gay film, it was this universal story of kids on the precipice of adulthood. They kind of grew over the story. No one ever asked them those questions: what is it like to be gay? What is it like to be attacked and bullied? By the end, they really are empowered.
We’re certainly working to make it something bigger, in terms of a moment, [with a] social outreach campaign we are kicking off, first in DC and then the rest of the world. We did an Indiegogo campaign, and we heard from ten different countries. We have these kids in Italy, Russia, and they’re invisible. We hope to start in DC and move forward from there.
7R: Tray, why was Check It reluctant to be documented?
Tray: I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t know anything about Dana. We are taught, growing up, that information stays home. You don’t go out and tell your business to anybody. I talked to my mother before she passed away. She said, ‘If you’re going to do it, you better go ahead and do it.” So that’s what I did. For so long, I wouldn’t give Dana [anything.] [I thought it was] acting, because that’s what I like to do. In this case, it was to tell your story. This is your story. So I opened up. And I just didn’t care no more. We were already known throughout Washington, D.C. — we were all known. I don’t care what my home says, why should I care about what the world says?
7R: Since the group lead the action, did they also lead you to the male role models you captured in the film?
Dana: Moe was the first. He does work with gang conference resolution. He’s been doing that for 15 years. Duke works with troubled youth. So having the mentors in [the film], [Check it] couldn’t do anything out there without that.
Toby: That’s how Jamal, who runs the fashion camp came about: through Moe. That also became an amazing device narratively, like the spine – them going to the fashion camp. What I thought was so crucial for us making the film, because we shot for many months. And it kind of like hit it was this amazing opportunity, not just narratively, but to show them a cool creative opportunity is being presented to them. How they can thrive from it.
7R: I was really shocked by the violence at the beginning of the movie, but there seemed to be a sense of hope at the end. Have you seen a decrease in violence against LGBT youth because of Check It’s influence in DC?
Dana: In DC, I do think it’s changing. We’re working with the mayor’s office. They’re doing outreach. [Check It members] are being trained to do outreach on the street to work with other youth. One of the most gratifying and amazing these is when we found out, just through the grapevine, because my friend is a cop – I saw your [film] trailer we’re using it for sensitivity training. So we’re working now with the police department because there is a separate LGBTQ police department. There’s actually a trans sergeant, who’s a big fan of the film. [Although], there are hundreds of kids who are living on the street and prostituting themselves. It’s a very dangerous world out there. Until that stops it’s not going to stop. But, there is potential for great and profound change. And we’re hoping that the film will push us towards that.
7R: Tray, what is your role now in the community?
Tray: I think it’s so important to be an advocate because a lot of the youth in Washington, DC don’t have support. And it’s hard because we didn’t have support. And we still don’t have support from the LGBTQ community, which is hard because there are over 200 of us.
Dana: We are the impetus. And that’s incredibly gratifying. [DC is] a symbol of democracy worldwide and yet there’s such disparity between white and black, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. And for me as an Washingtonian it’s heartbreaking. We, as a nation, send billions of dollars to other countries like Haiti. And right there, seventh street where they hang out – there are members of congress that will literally walk over these kids. From [Washington], all people know are the monuments. [Check It] is real Washington. This is the people that are being pushed out, the gentrification is just incredible. But these are the stories that don’t get told, which is astonishing because there’s no present DC anywhere else in the world.
Toby: [The press is] reticent and scared to tell their stories.
Dana: No, they don’t care.
Toby: The major thing with making this film, here today. Money. It takes a lot of money to make a film. Even when you’re not paying yourselves. It’s a labour of love. It took years just to get enough. There’s these rumours about the documentary community, Hollywood ready to tell these stories. These invisible stories, sad stories, stories of colour. We’re just seeing now, we’re seeing some really interesting offers and interest, but who’s going to have the balls to put this story up.
7R: One moment that stood out for me was when Duke lost his gym. He was going through a divorce, and he was forced to live in his car. But then he starts dancing in the parking lot. It was so funny, and sad, and that tone was a throughline in the film. Can you talk about that theme a bit? Because it was complex and not black and white, but this grey.
Toby: And that’s what’s amazing. Despite that they are the funniest, wittiest, sarcastic, sardonic incredible [group of] youth, just embracing life.
Dana: I’m so glad you picked up on that because that’s my proudest moment as a filmmaker. It was like, “Oh my god, it was something magical!” It’s very profound. If our mentors are in that stage. what hope do these kids have? That’s the fragility of the whole thing. It’s just holding by a string.