Campaign: CHIME FOR CHANGE

Far From Heaven

By Stephanie Lamorre

I hold a fascination for violent women, surely because I am somewhat violent myself. If I hadn't grown up in a middle-class neighborhood in France, if I were one of these girls, I too would have joined a gang when I was their age. The girls in my film "Far From Heaven" are young and dynamic, perhaps they would have become lawyers and doctors, if only they had been born elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, riots and confrontation with the police have historically been high, and it seemed a good place to document female gang life and show how they challenge the myth of motherhood and the image of women as natural caregivers, as nurturers of life who never hit back. In 2015, there was an estimated one million gang members in the United States, among them, 60 000 to 80 000 are women. There was also a 12.6% rise in the number of violent crimes last year, most caused by increasing gang-related and domestic violence*.

I followed eleven of these girls for several weeks in the infamous South Central neighborhood. The name is synonymous with widespread unemployment, urban decay and street crime (It was replaced by South LA in 2003). Eighteen percent of the families living in South Central have incomes below the poverty level, twice more than the country at large. The girls just call it “The Hood,” a common ground of chaotic childhoods, broken families, and an endemic overall violence that was born with them. All of them joined gangs when they were only 12 or 13 years old and for different motives, ranging from easy cash money to a love story with a gang member. Others simply had family already involved in gang life and were too little to question anything. I filmed their days filled with conflicts and stealing and trafficking drugs, year in, year out, a life punctuated by the recurring murders of people they know.

Some want out. The gang they mistook for a family they now hope to flee, they want to escape the chaos and save their children. Or not. Others remain loyal to the end, the gang above it all, always. "I don’t know if I will be alive tomorrow " Rosa once told me. Rosa, like all of them, accepts this as the bottom line of her existence: run with it or die. As if they were living in a country at war, they defend territories and communities plagued by a deep social illness when violence is perceived as the only way to make yourself matter. Gang members create their territories to have a geographical, social, and racial identity. Yet, integration is a concept beyond which races do not mix. And genders even less.

One might think that these girls are destroying their lives for no valid reason. That they have chosen to be in a gang, because they have guns, because they steal, because they attack and insult people. Women also seem to be twice as guilty of being violent precisely because of their gender . But I mainly saw a desperation to exist in a world deserted by love and the daily struggle to survive your own life.

I understand that inner violence because of my own story so I have never judged them, in their environment they were doing their best. It’s not an easy place to get acquainted to, especially if you are blonde and white. And I was reckless enough to Los Angeles without a driver’s license. At first, I would go to the gang neighborhoods on my bicycle, I was an alien to them they wondered what on earth I was doing there and why wasn’t I afraid? Perhaps that’s why the girls accepted me, because I was unafraid and hadn’t much more to lose than they did.

Jasmine-Traybang-Lady Don Don. Gang: Avalon Crips-Los Angeles

It took them a few days to stop acting out in front of the camera. Filming was very difficult as the male didn’t want to appear and they ended up banning me from the park where they all meet. I was the white spook; they didn’t see the point of me being there. The girls never left each other’s side and shared a chilling lucidity about their fates. Acutely alive in the moment while already a little dead, knowing what it means to be a gangster.

Itza and Edwin. Gang: LA 18-Los Angeles

The first time I met Itza it was in a parking lot, she was aggressive but we quickly made friends and I spent a lot of time with her and her boyfriend Edwin. I have never seen them use hard drugs; in fact, many gang members are far from being drug addicts. Itza joined the gang very young looking for love and recognition.

Miko and her mother. Gang: Hoover crips-Los Angeles

Miko’s mother agreed to talk to me to help other young women like her daughter plagued by negativity and hopelessness. She didn’t believe the neighborhood could change but she hoped and her daughter would. Communication between them was restricted to mumbled monologues and screaming.

Dalisha-Los Angeles

Female gang are no tomboys, they like to pay attention to their looks, they do their hair and paint their nails. Dalisha’s femininity comes through in this rare moment of rest for a gangster.

Bad Luck- Gang: Avalon Crips-Los Angeles

Her nickname speaks of a life of struggles and fights. She told me one day that she would have loved to be from another place and have played with Barbie dolls. But her existence is made of anger and pain, violence is not extraordinary for her, it’s what daily life looks like and in her world, if you don’t retaliate you die.

----- Meet the Filmmaker: Stephanie Lamorre is an award-winning French documentary filmmaker and independent writer/director. Among other films: WE WERE BORN FREE - a powerfull investigative documentary on the social and political crisis in South Africa. DRC'S WOMEN WARRIORS - 500,000 women raped on one side and hundreds turned combatants on the other. BAHRAIN THE FORBIDDEN COUNTRY - 3 perspectives, from the forbidden country of the Arab Revolution. A country forgotten by the West, outstanding, clandestinely filmed footage FAR FROM HEAVEN - a documentary about several female gang members in Los Angeles. By living with them and gaining their trust, we understand where their violence comes from. Watch Far From Heaven

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