As a teenager in Chicago, he was warned about crossing specific streets into the dangerous South Side. Those cautions only made Cyrus Dowlatshahi more curious.
He’d been raised in middle-class Hyde Park, not far from the forbidden zone some controversially dubbed Chi-raq because of the violence. Yet whenever Dowlatshahi traveled in the city’s toughest neighborhoods, he found the people there welcoming and charismatic.
The 34-year-old director knew the characters and stories from those neighborhoods weren’t being captured in the mainstream media. If anything, ominous headlines about South Side violence were overshadowing the resilient people who regularly faced mugging, gunfire and hustling.
So Dowlatshahi, a director who has filmed pieces for PBS, ESPN, and Al-Jazeera, set out to tell those stories. His documentary, Takin’ Place, the result of four years of filming, resulted in a collection of stories at turns exalting, dismaying, rollicking and enraging.
Takin' Place - Trailer Takin' Place - Trailer
Filmed in cars, kitchens, shops and a beauty parlor, Takin’ Place talks with people who find clever ways to cope with and even thrive amidst Chicago’s harsh crime statistics.
A woman getting her hair done explains how she avoids being mugged by storing everything she needs in her bra: money, a cell phone and makeup.
In a South Side kitchen, a matronly woman in glasses and a headwrap stacks up jeans, shoes and shirts, and says she’s going to take the pile into the alley and burn it.
“How can you steal from your grandma?” Ethel asks the camera. “The lady who been taking care of your ass all of your f**kin’ life.”
She’s cussing about one of the 27 neighborhood children she invited into her house to help grow up successfully on the South Side. That kid nabbed $1,000 from Ethel’s safe and went on a shopping spree.
Ethel may have taken in a kid who robbed her, but she’s also fostered delinquent children who change their paths in life.
The parallels between Dowlatshahi’s hometown and Iran, the country his parents fled in 1980, aren’t lost on the filmmaker. Contrary to the image often portrayed in media, he finds both places filled with extremely hospitable people. He empathizes with folks who live in the part of town often characterized as a war zone and are regularly typecast as criminals.
“After 9/11, people thought I was going to blow sh*t up … I never got asked before if I was a U.S. citizen. I’m a White Sox fan,” says Dowlatshahi. “I’m familiar with the business side of stereotypes. I know what discrimination feels like.”
Several of the subjects in Takin’ Place ask Dowlatshahi if he’s Muslim. Sitting in a truck’s cab, “Jerk Man” (who sells Jerk chicken) says to the Iranian-American: “Oh Lord, I got a suicide bomber with me! Please don’t cut my head off,” before smiling and saying he’s just teasing.
At another point, he asks Dowlatshahi if he ever goes back to Iran.
“It’s like a lot of places,” says the voice behind the camera. “Sometimes when you’ve never been to a place and it has a reputation, you think it’s going to be scary, but for the most part people are a lot friendlier than you thought they’d be.”
“I can relate to that,” responds Jerk Man. ‘That’s the same thing here.”
As a teenager, Dowlatshahi had friends who lived on the “wrong side of the tracks.” For kicks he painted his Toyota Camry desert camouflage with the fictional seal of “Secret Police of the University of Chicago” on the side. He drove around Englewood and other questionable neighborhoods to film anything interesting, including arrests.
One time his three-person crew rolled up on an officer who wasn’t amused by their guerrilla tactics and charged them with felony impersonation of the police.
“So many of the cops knew us that when we were arrested we walked into the police station and got a standing ovation,” remembers Dowlatshahi. The charges were later reduced and the secret police only needed to do community service.
Making those secret police videos helped nurture Dowlatshahi’s longstanding interest in life on the South Side.
Reactions to the film have ranged from celebration to disgust. At Chicago screenings, Dowlatshahi has had to defend the politically incorrect content in the film, which include prejudice and a slew of expletives. It’s just capturing people as they talk, he explains.
Older folks who marched with Dr. King in the ’60s watch the film and notice life hasn’t changed much on the South Side, says Dowlatshahi. “There’s this vast inequality … It’s hard for those civil rights activists to see.”
The Chicago Tribune praised Takin’ Place as a “slice-of-life chronicle that has a terrific off-the-cuff quality to it.”
Dowlatshahi hopes to film his next documentary in Iran. He’s already spent two months in the country studying Farsi in preparation for a longer visit.
“Iran has the same reputation as the South Side of Chicago: ‘Don’t go there. They want to kill you.’ Iran could not be more safe. And [Iranians] love Americans.”
He’s not sure exactly what shape the documentary will take, but knows making it will require patience: “Crazy, interesting, funny stuff happens all the time. You just have to be out there with a camera to get it.”