Filmmaker Cam Robert highlights the strength of community against the backdrop of Chicago’s housing crisis
We talk to the filmmaker about creating a short film for Saba’s album Few Good Things, which offers a new perspective on the history and communities of West Side Chicago.
- 11 April 2022
- Elfie Thomas
Chicago-based rapper Saba approached Cam Robert back in 2020 to create a film and series of documentary-style photographs for his upcoming album Few Good Things. “Saba knew coming into it that his album would touch on family and legacy, and how it can be strained when faced with financial instability created by conditions often times found in Chicago”, says the filmmaker. “But it took time for us to really understand the texture of this from a visual standpoint.” What followed over the next couple of years is a long series of weekly conversations between the two artists, sharing music, memories and building a collective landscape in which to frame Saba’s new album. The result was a film about Chicago – its Black history and its current housing crisis – whilst at the same time zeroing in on moments of beauty which occur in its troubled landscape.
Cam explains that Chicago's housing crisis has left 20,000 buildings abandoned: “each sits empty, filled with the potential of bringing some solace to someone’s life, but instead they sit boarded up,” he says. “It’s really heartbreaking when you think about it. Especially when you realise that following the Great Migration, many of these homes served as the first instance of ownership for many Black families.”
Both Saba and Cam were determined that their film should provide a new and positive perspective on the real communities that thrive in Chicago. “Too often, whenever Chicago is portrayed, we felt that people were left with a negative image. But we knew that’s not the message we wanted to land on,” says Cam. “Instead, we wanted to highlight that it’s complex, and there are reasons for it being the way it is. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty throughout it.”
Representing the strength and beauty of communities in Chicago from an honest and positive perspective became the “ethos” on which the film was constructed. To achieve this, Cam intertwines documentary-style footage of the abandoned housing in Chicago with sun-filled shots of intimate family moments within this landscape: a family praying before a meal, a mother caressing her daughter’s head, a couple of adventurous young boys exploring their neighbourhood. Photos from Saba’s family albums are featured intermittently throughout the film, connecting these universal experiences with the rapper’s own story. Continuing this thread, Cam incorporated recordings of Saba talking to his grandfather about his mother who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. The overall collage-like effect is aptly summarised by Cam as a “blend of reality, memories and dreams”. He adds: “We never really draw the line in the sand for where one begins and the next ends."
While Few Good Things is Cam’s first real foray into creative direction and film-making, his background in photo-journalism has set him in good stead for representing the communities in a sensitive light. He initially followed a path in photojournalism because it seemed more feasible than filmmaking; Cam always had “that itch to do more creatively”. So, for Saba’s film, he finally had the opportunity to combine his experience in story-telling with the freedom to pull off a truly creative project.
The overarching goal which binds the film’s different elements was to represent Chicago in a way that was universal, that would hit home for the community whilst retaining a strong resonance with Saba’s own story. From the natural-lighting in shots to the casting and the little details like hand-written notes and family photographs, “everything had to be intentional”, says Cam.
Looking back on the film as a whole, what Cam’s most proud of is that the majority of talent in the film was either a part of Saba’s community back in the West Side of Chicago or were from the area. In this way, “it became a project for the community, and by the community.” In response to the film, Cam has received an influx of messages from the community, “saying they had never seen Chicago in this light before and that this was the more realistic representation they had seen,” he concludes. “That lets me know that I told a story that was authentic.”
C.T. Robert: Few Good Things (Copyright © Saba Pivot LLC, 2022)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.