BOOTLEG FILES 628: “The Jungle” (1967 documentary made by a Philadelphia street gang).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Murky rights issue.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It’s possible.
Movies about street gangs rarely resonate with any degree of honesty, if only because filmmakers have a tendency to sanitize or glamorize the gangs with the hope that something good can be found in their bad boy behavior. However, there was one strange little film that attempted to get a street level view of gang behavior, and what made it so unusual was having real gang members on both sides of the camera.
In 1967, a Temple University social worker named Harold Haskins received a grant from a California philanthropy seeking to produce a film that studied why young people in Philadelphia entered the gang culture. Rather than recruit documentary filmmakers to helm this project, Haskins thought it would make more sense if the gang members were actively involved in the production.
“Everybody I knew were doing films that were about people, without involving them in the actual work,” Haskins later stated. “They would interview some people and then leave the community.”
Haskins recruited African-American gang members from North Philadelphia and, with the help of volunteer film professionals, offered these young men a crash course in how to make a film. Twenty-five gang members became the core of this endeavor and founded the 12th and Oxford Filmmakers Corporation to control the rights to their work, which they dubbed “The Jungle.”
The resulting work was shot over an eight-month period in a black-and-white 16mm format, with a 22-minute running time. In some ways, “The Jungle” is a raw, visceral and painfully honest view of inner city poverty and hopelessness. In other ways, it is a ridiculous mess.
The film’s pre-credit sequence is a striking introduction: an assault on a pedestrian on a dark street, shot in noir-worthy style with a hypnotic percussion score. But then come the credits, which are hand-written in amateurish penmanship. Then, the film switches back to a professional style as the camera explores the wreckage of inner city Philadelphia, with views of burned out buildings and an abandoned car junkyard and interviews with gang members speaking frankly about the poverty and violence that surrounds them.
This is followed by another assault sequence, shot at night in an alley way. Unlike the opening segment, this sequence is badly staged, and it is painfully obvious that the hooligans are not making genuine physical contact with their victim. The miscreants are peeled off their victim one-by-one by an adult witness to the attack, who dispatches the perpetrators with punches to the jaw.
The film then returns to more gang members who speak openly about their drinking habits. For much of “The Jungle,” the screen time pinballs between interviews, staged fights and shots of gang members roaming through the wasteland of their neighborhood.
The one time the film breaks from this pattern is a scene at a party in an unidentified setting – it is not certain if it is a club or someone’s basement. The Spinners’ tune “Truly Yours” plays on the soundtrack while the gang members and their girlfriends slow dance. The scene is beautifully composed, with the dance couples silhouetted against a bright light beaming from the back of the room. There is also a pair of non-dancing guys sit on a couch and chat up a young lady whose gaze suggests vain hopes of being anywhere else – while they sit the dance out, shadows of the dancing couples flash on the bare white wall behind them.
After this, the film goes back to cross-cutting between interviews and staged scenes, ending in a hokey showdown where a gun gets pulled and victims collapse and die on the ground with nary a drop of shed blood. The film’s closing credits are in the same amateurish scrawl of the opening credits.
According to film historian Daniel Eagan, footage was shot with “The Jungle” cast and crew visiting the nearby location set of the Sidney Poitier film “The Lost Man.” However, Poitier’s footage was jettisoned because it didn’t fit the narrative.
While three gang members were credited as directors, the more polished scenes in “The Jungle” clearly seems to have been created by someone with filmmaking experience. Some segments, especially the dance party, were too polished to be the work of nonprofessionals with no previous knowledge of how to light and stage film scenes. Haskins stated that he wound up putting discarded footage back into the film in order to adjust the narrative into some semblance of order.
“The Jungle” made a minor sensation when it was first presented, winning an award at the 1968 Festival de Popoli in Italy. Screenings were arranged at schools and youth groups before a licensing agreement was signed with the non-theatrical distributor Churchill Films. Buoyed by the positive feedback, the gang members began work on a second film.
Alas, the second film was never completed and the gang members abandoned filmmaking. “The Jungle” was mostly forgotten by the early 1970s. The film would have fallen into oblivion had it not been for film collector Jay Schwartz, who purchased a 16mm print in 2004 and worked aggressively and successfully to have “The Jungle” included on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
To date, “The Jungle” has never been made available for home entertainment release. Part of the problem involves the question of ownership – the 12th and Oxford Filmmakers Corporation no longer exists and Churchill Films (which was sold to American Educational Products in 1994) does not have home entertainment release rights. The film was restored in 2009 by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and that version has occasionally been screened in festivals related to the African-American experience.
Viewed today, “The Jungle” is an interesting curio whose value is historic rather than artistic. Copies of the film can be found on YouTube, which can offer contemporary viewers a chance to consider this odd little mix of 1960s-style sociology and cinema vérité.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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