Documentary film is a unique art form, in that it aims to harness the power of another genre––narrative cinema––to convey objective truths. At its best, documentary is akin to great journalism as well: by using craft, research, reporting, and a patient eye, the documentarian can distill mountains of information into a portrait of society as it presently stands.
That certainly can be said of the work done by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, whose films have not only aimed to tell the stories of their subjects, but to move the needle on social change. Their 2019 film, No Small Matter, co-directed by Danny Alpert, was a staggering indictment of our country’s education system and its failure to provide vital resources to children during their formative years. That film succeeded not only in relaying the important facts and figures, but in honing in on the personal stories within the statistics, most notably with a Chicago-area schoolteacher who poured her heart and soul into helping enrich the young minds in her classroom but had to tend bar at night just to make ends meet.
That dedication to the human underbelly of larger social problems is beautifully rendered in the pair’s latest feature, The Road Up, which opens today at the Siskel Center after its premiere at the 2020 Chicago International Film Festival. The Road Up takes audiences inside Cara, a Chicago based collective that provides job training and placements for those struggling with addiction, homelessness and criminal records through a series of programs, workshops, and mentorships. The film introduces us to Jesse Teverbaugh (affectionately known as Mr. Jesse), the leader of Cara’s “Transformations,” a four-week bootcamp required for all participants in the program, and revolves around these bootcamp sessions that take place in a conference room presided over by Mr. Jesse, who is charismatic yet brutally honest. The sessions sometimes resemble a sermon, with impassioned speeches and affirmative callbacks from participants, yet other times threaten to boil over with tension. In one particularly taut moment during an exercise intended to teach conflict avoidance, a participant admits he was ready to react with violence after Mr. Jesse’s provocations. It’s all part of the process, because, as Mr. Jesse says later in the film: “You gave me the permission to tell you the truth.”
The filmmakers also spend time highlighting the personal stories of several participants in Cara’s programs. Their backgrounds are different, their struggles unique, but they are all united by one detail: they’ve hit rock bottom, and the road to job security and independence represents an arduous uphill climb. We watch one participant go from her initial screening interview for the program, where she talks about her homelessness and drug addiction, all the way to landing a job and leaving the halfway house where she had been living.
Another participant, Clarence, is let go from the program after showing up late for a shift. The camera is present for the meeting between him and Mr. Jesse, and the lens stays trained tightly on Clarence as he discovers he has lost his spot in Cara. It’s a devastating moment, where Clarence details the struggles in his personal life—the death of a loved one, problems with landlords—and Mr. Jesse looks on with sympathy yet determination. There are consequences to our actions, he tells Clarence, and it’s the end of the line though not the end of the story. The door to Cara is closed for now, he says, but help is always there for those strong enough to ask for it.
There’s a poignancy to the way these stories are revealed, and Jacobs and Siskel, along with editor John Farbrother, craft a compelling arc for the film. Just as I began to wonder towards the end of the film about Mr. Jesse’s past and what drove him to become such a passionate crusader, the film delivers on his story. Without revealing too much, we learn Jesse has close ties to Cara, motivating him to be a part of the work they do for others.
Of course, in the midst of the pandemic, these stories of unemployment hit especially close to home, when so many in our country are dealing with joblessness and financial hardship. HBO Documentary’s recent film Hard Times: Lost on Long Island details New Yorkers struggling to find work after the 2008 financial crisis, and I thought about that film as I watched The Road Up, realizing how this persistent economic problem is far reaching and devastating. I myself am a recent graduate, laid off at the start of the pandemic, and the job search has been—for me and many of my classmates—a difficult pill to swallow. But this film offered me a sense of hope, not byway of the Cara program itself, but from the stories of those who endured hardship and came out the other side. Mr. Jesse and his colleagues don’t prioritize finding work through the program, but finding self-worth and accountability as the key to building a sustainable future for ourselves and our loved ones. And job or no job, we can all do that work together.
The Road Up is now playing at Siskel Film Center
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