Carlos Javier Ortiz talks about his work in TOPIC

By Carlos Javier Ortiz


I spent the summer of 2018 in Chicago. There was a lot of tension in the air: the case against police officer Jason Van Dyke, who fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014, was headed to trial in early September, and no Chicago police officer had been found guilty of murder for an on-duty shooting in about 50 years. And general gun violence seemed unending: over a single weekend in August, there would be 72 people shot and 13 killed in the city.


Protests provided a balm. Community organizers, such as Reverend Michael Pfleger, Reverend Marshall Hatch, and Tio Hardiman, devised actions against gun violence that wouldn’t just touch communities on the South and West Sides of Chicago, but also parts of the city not generally associated with gun violence, including Lakeshore Drive and Wrigley Field. The gatherings were about addressing state violence—like the killing of Laquan McDonald—but also about the roots of violence in the community itself: widespread poverty and the city’s divestment in affected neighborhoods.


I was on the ground in July 2018, filming a protest that would shut down a major South Side highway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, during an action “designed to focus a spotlight on crime, joblessness and poverty plaguing city neighborhoods,” per the Chicago Tribune. “Hopefully we got their attention,” Reverend Pfleger told the reporters. “Today was the attention-getter, but now comes the action.” A month later, I filmed another protest that began along Lakeshore Drive, in the expensive North Side of Chicago, and made its way to Wrigley Field, where protestors called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign. There’s a myth that black and brown people don’t talk about violence in their own communities. But with my work, I wanted to convey that people see these protests as a kind of recognition. It gives you the power to say, “We’re not going to stand for this.” I wanted the film to have a mood of empathy, a mood of love. It’s a story of love and resilience and I hope people can escape from their ideology, take a step back, and listen.


I look at documentation and experimental filmmaking as ways of conceptualizing a moment in time: the noises in the street, the shouts and chants, the signs and slogans—the evidence that these actions even took place at all. A protest can happen, and then dissolve. But these protests did have a real effect on the city: in September, Mayor Emanuel announced that he would not be seeking a third term as mayor next year. And in October, Officer Van Dyke was found guilty of murder for shooting Laquan McDonald. But this is not the end. It’s not about communities saying that this is a problem that’s going to fix itself. After all, the past has a tendency to repeat itself.


Carlos Javier Ortiz is a director, cinematographer, and documentary photographer who focuses on urban life, gun violence, racism, poverty, and marginalized communities. Ortiz is a Guggenheim fellow in film and video. His films We All We Got (2014), A Thousand Midnights (2015) and Shikaaw (2017) have screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, Los Angeles International Film Festival, and Art Basel, among others. Special thanks to Avery R. Young for providing the music for the film.