One of the most uplifting documentaries that will screen during the 2021 Slamdance Film Festival is Jason Polevoi’s “A Tiny Ripple of Hope.”
The film’s title comes from the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s “Day of Affirmation” speech he gave addressing appartheid on June 6, 1966, in Cape Town, South Africa, and the documentary sums up the work of My Block, My Hood, My City, a Chicago-based nonprofit run by Jahmal Cole.
The organization takes kids outside of their neighborhoods to different parts of the city so they can experience different cultures, according to Polevoi.
“We’re talking about kids who oftentimes don’t leave their own street, because there is gang violence or they are expected to be home to take care of younger siblings,” the filmmaker said. “Jahmal opens their eyes to what a short train ride could do for them, and most likely, these kids probably didn’t know there was even a Chinatown in Chicago.”
The documentary not only focuses on Cole’s tireless service to his cause. It also focuses on the toll his work takes on his personal life, which includes foreclosure of his mortgage, his separation from his wife and being a target of a drive-by shooting.
Polevoi and his crew started principal photography in 2017, and followed Cole for nearly four years.
“What actually made it into the film is about a year in his life from 2017-2018,” the filmmaker said. “It felt like a formative year, because it was both positive and negative for Jahmal. Looking back I like to say it’s his superhero origin story. It really was formative to the man he is today and the program that he runs.”
Although Cole was still funding his nonprofit on the back of his mortgage payments at that time, he was determined to help the kids in his program, according to Polevoi.
“At the same time, his nonprofit is transitioning into a more professional organization, and because of this, he comes up against laws that prevent him from being able to pay for winter jackets for the kids out of his own money, or paying to turn heat and electricity for these kids’ families,” Polevoi said. “It isn’t the most attractive time of his life, but it felt like the most important time from his perspective, which is that no one was going to do this but himself.”
The documentary’s seed sprouted while Polevoi worked as associate producer for a program on Chicago’s WGN TV.
“I was a supporter of his nonprofit organization before we knew each other, because I liked what he was doing in the city,” Polevoi said. “So, I booked Jahmal and some of his kids for the show, because I wanted to support him. We started talking afterwards, and that’s how we established the idea of the documentary.”
To Polevoi’s surprise, Cole gave him and his film crew nearly full access to his life.
“I think he would tell you at this point that he may be embarrassed by some of what you see in the film, but he is glad for people to see them, because it is very difficult to do what he does,” Polevoi said.
The filmmaker was grateful for the time granted, because he was able to see who the real Cole was.
“Jahmal is 6-foot-4 and works out all the time, so he’s big and muscle bound and kind of imposing,” Polevoi said. “It would be easy to pigeonhole him into a type of person who lives on the South Side of Chicago, but he is really multifaceted.”
A kind heart is one of Cole’s attributes Polevoi saw in action.
“He’s a giant softy,” Polevoi said. “You see it in the way he treats his daughters, and how he treats the teenagers and their families. He’s extremely sensitive and caring, and he can feel it when something isn’t right.”
The sensitivity also pushed Polevoi and his crew to dig into Cole’s motivation for his work in a city that even its own Metropolitan Planning Council ranked fifth in the nation for combined racial and economic segregation.
“There’s a scene in the film where Jahmal rallies people from all over the city to come to the South Side to shovel snow,” Polevoi said.
The real importance of the act was to bring people from all over the city together, which doesn’t happen often in Chicago, he said.
“People that live on the North Side, which is predominantly white and predominantly wealthy, don’t go to the South Side, which is poorer and black,” Polevoi said. “And people from the South Side don’t go to the west side, which is poor and brown. So what we wanted to show was Jahmal’s ability to impart a spirit of interconnectivity that brings people together to meet, interact and start to understand that someone on the North Side should care if something happens to someone on the South Side.”
Polevoi is grateful his film and its message will be seen at Slamdance.
“When we were making this film, it felt timely, and four years later, it still feels timely,” he said. “I think it’s because the film speaks to the human condition, which will always be relevant.”