Dontre Hamilton documentary to have three showings
Film’s producer tries to show all sides in controversial death

By TOM JOZWIK - TimeOut Film Critic

September 28, 2017



MILWAUKEE - One is tempted to summarize “The Blood Is at the Doorstep,” scheduled for three screenings at the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, by calling it the story of Dontre Hamilton.

But such a label would be only partially correct, the documentary’s producer-director Erik Ljung (a Swedish surname, pronounced “young”) suggested in a recent interview. “We let everybody have their say,” the Milwaukee resident explained. 

“Everybody” includes the family of Hamilton, a schizophrenic 31-year old African-American man shot to death by a Milwaukee police officer in Red Arrow Park downtown in 2014, as well as the Milwaukee Police Department and police union officials. “Basically,” said Ljung, who served as his documentary’s primary cinematographer in addition to producing and directing it, “I let the people directly involved kind of speak for themselves.”

Among the biggest challenges in making “The Blood,” Ljung added, was “to get all the people involved to talk to us. Obviously this was a very controversial issue here in Milwaukee.”

The director said he and his crew - pre-eminently associate producer-cinematographer Dan Peters and film editor Michael T. Vollmann - didn’t go into their documentary-making with preconceived notions. “We were watching the media reports early on,” Ljung recalled. “We were interested in talking to (Hamilton’s) family and getting their perspective on things” to supplement that of the MPD.

A scene from Erik Ljung’s “The Blood Is at the Doorstep.”

Milwaukee Film Photo

The net result is a 90-minute movie, Ljung’s first feature documentary, which joined the film festival circuit in March but was still being “tweaked” less than a month before the first of its scheduled MFF screenings in Ljung’s adopted hometown.

Why did Ljung expend three years of his time and “a ton of my own money” to bring this saga of a violent death and its aftermath to the big screen?

“I think it’s important for everybody to get offered an inside perspective,” the filmmaker said, “rather than a two-minute news clip online - a new perspective on all sides, an in-depth, nuanced look.”

The 34-year-old Ljung was born in northern California (“wine country”) and followed a Ph.D.-pursuing girlfriend to Milwaukee nine years ago. The relationship ended, but Ljung stayed (after all, the cost of living is far more palatable here), doing web and graphic design work for the Pabst and Riverside Theaters and becoming a freelance producer and director of photography, or DP. Ljung won a regional Emmy Award last year as DP for public television’s “Wisconsin Foodie” series. He’s produced short documentaries for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other entities, and served as cinematographer for “Almost Sunrise,” a doc about military veterans with Milwaukee ties that was prominently featured at last year’s MFF.

“To be quite honest, I wasn’t a cinephile growing up,” Ljung recalled. Rather, he and his pals were skateboarders - “terrible skateboarders,” but kids who nonetheless made skateboarding videos. From there to a graphic design degree to “The Blood Is at the Doorstep,” with several stops in between.

“I’m happy with how (‘The Blood’) turned out,” Ljung stated. “I think it’s gotten a good reception wherever we’ve shown it (Maryland, Texas, New York). I learned a lot from making this film ... a great experience.”

Although he isn’t “actively working on” a follow-up film at the moment, Ljung is mulling ideas as he and “The Blood” stride along the festival circuit. “I should do a rom-com (romantic comedy) just to make things a little bit lighter” in “The Blood’s” wake, the moviemaker joked.

“Joked” is the operative word here. It is the documentary genre - definitely the documentary genre - that admittedly captured, and continues to hold, Erik Ljung’s fancy.

Identified as the 2017 MFF’s “centerpiece film” (its premiere occurs at the midpoint of the two-week festival), “The Blood Is at the Doorstep” plays at 7 p.m. Oct. 6 and 11 a.m. Oct. 7 at the Landmark Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., and at 8:45 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Times Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St. Filmmakers and subjects are slated to attend the screenings and discussion sessions will follow. The MFF runs today through Oct. 12 at five Milwaukee County locations.