On Monday evening, Azalee Irving’s short documentary will be streamed by the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Black Harvest Film Festival. That would be an exciting honor for anyone. For Irving, it runs deeper than excitement.
Irving is 17, the youngest of seven siblings, and lives in a two-flat in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood with her mother, her sister, her niece and the star of her three-minute film — her 4-year-old nephew, Ja’King Jones.
“Being an African American female on the South Side of Chicago, I see a lot of violence, a lot of poverty,” she said when I called her the other day. “Living in the neighborhood with negatives can make you give up on what makes you positive.”
Irving is blunt about her long struggle to see the positive. As a child, she spent time in foster care. She took mood medications before discovering that therapy was more helpful.
“I started flunking in school,” she said, recalling a time not long ago. “My behavior got bad. I just didn’t have anything that I saw to strive for. I lost interest for my creative spark. DePaul’s program really opened that door back up to me.”
She’s talking about the DePaul/CHA Documentary Film Program for Girls, a collaboration between DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts and the Chicago Housing Authority. The program is built on two central ideas. One is the need to expand the stories that get told — about Chicago and beyond — by cultivating a wider range of storytellers. The other is the need to expand the vision and experiences of young women living in CHA-subsidized housing.
Liliane Calfee, who runs the program, calls these young women “cycle breakers.”
“They’re the ones going to raise the next generation,” she says. “If you can change their minds, or help them choose education, you can make changes in a single generation.”
The program has been around since 2016, but it’s different during the pandemic of 2020. Instead of meeting in person during the six-week filmmaking period this summer, the 15 girls convened on Zoom. In the first half of the program, using Apple iPad Pros on loan from the city’s Department of Family & Support Services, each girl made a three-minute film, usually involving life at home.
“My individual project was inspired by me trying to step out of the box,” Irving said. “Instead of having a film about bullying or racism — the classics — it was, what can I show others that I haven’t seen before?”
Her answer: her love for Ja’King.
“I wanted to show everybody else how much my nephew means to me,” she said, “and show others what their younger relatives can mean to them.”
She recorded Ja’King dancing in the living room, laughing, flexing his bicep, lining up toy trucks on the front stoop. In her voice-over, she talked about helping make sure he was well-dressed and, above all, spared some of the “tough things” she’d been through.
“I got discouraged a