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SXSW 2017: Jonathan Chinn talks National Geographics’ “LA 92” documentary

We had the opportunity to chat with Emmy award-winning producer Jonathan Chinn (“American High”) and marking the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots with “LA 92,” a powerful look at the racial tensions that fueled six days of violent civil unrest across LA County. Jonathan Chinn was at National Geographic Further Base Camp located at Vulcan Gas Company as part of a three-person panel discussing upcoming NatGeo documentaries. 

Can you tell me how you got involved with National Geographic and making “LA 92” and what the documentary is about?

Jonathan: First thing we realized is that it was around the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots and we thought it’d be interesting to do a film where you look back on what happened in ’92 but also in the context of what’s going on in America today. It’s just one of those things that when we starting making the film we were made aware that this story is kind of on a continuum and these things flare up every 25 years or so. It’s interesting that there’s this cyclical nature to it and I think the film pretty successfully articulates that notion of cyclical and systemic oppression and unrest.

I’m interested in how we can take the past and apply it to now. What trends did you see back in ’92 and present day?

Jonathan: The interesting thing about the ’92 unrest is that it was precipitated by essentially a piece of home video where consumer cameras were just sort of entering the market. George Holliday who filmed the Rodney King beating was just testing his camera out. Back then very few public citizens had cameras. There’s someone in the film that says, “This has been going on for decades, it’s just now we have the proof.” We just have more and more proof now with iPhones capturing a lot of oppression and so it’s fascinating to look back at the the first incident where there was proof and obviously those officers were essentially acquitted. It sort of did set the stage a little bit of feeling that the judicial system does not serve American citizens equally and that’s something that in the last few years we’ve seen. It’s not just not about police brutality even though that’s a big part of what happened in ’92. There was also Latasha Harlins who was a teenage African American girl who was shot by a Korean store clerk who thought she was stealing orange juice and was captured on video via the security cameras. The store clerk was found guilty but served no prison time and that happened right after the Rodney King tape came out so it’s not just police brutality that drew people to the unrest. It’s that feeling that there was somehow inequality in the judicial system.

In the process of making this film have you seen any improvement in the last 25 years in any part of this issues and why do you think the cycle is continuing?

Jonathan: I mean far be for me, I’m not African-American so I can’t speak from experience, I’m an observer in terms what it feels like to be an African-American and come up against the judicial system. I think there have been improvements and I think there’s been steps back but I think it’s one of those things about race relations in America. It is so embedded in the DNA of our country and the dysfunction of race relations is so embedded that in some ways these things get worked out very, very slowly. We can have a Civil Rights movement and we can have a real successful activism that moves things forward but because it’s so embedded in our DNA I do feel that over time, systemically we revert back to-and I hate to say it-but the natural state of things. Even with all it’s talk of freedom and equality America has its achilles’ heel which dates back to slavery and the class system in America that even though there is class mobility there is still class structure and I think that’s what ultimately the LA riots were about. I think police brutality was sort of the thing that lit the fuse, but the dynamite was something much more deep seeded than police brutality.

Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Was there anything that surprised you during the making of this film or something that you really wanted to highlight and get right in the film?

Jonathan: One of the things I feel like the film really highlights is something I wasn’t quite aware of before we undertook making the film was the similarities between these iconic civil unrests. Watts riots, ’92 LA riots, same city but when you look at those two events and you look at the precipitating incidents and all that stuff it is history repeating itself almost point-by-point.The biggest surprise for me were those two incidents were mirror images of each other which leads you to believe that if we don’t tackle these issues systematically and nationally that there could be something around the corner. Baltimore and Ferguson were examples of this and again were about police brutality and police force they that led to unrest but nothing like the Watts and LA ’92 riots.

I was actually in LA during the riots attending film school in South Central. I was in the heart of it and I got to be honest until we started to really dive into the archives and see what happened I hadn’t realized how extensive it was, the whole city was on fire. LA is a big city and it was a warzone and I hadn’t realized it because there was no social media back then and I was also scared in some ways and was in survival mode. One of the things the film tries to demonstrate is what humans are capable of, both in terms of how we treat each other, how angry we can get and how much destruction we can lay bare. But for me that was a real wake up call when I had to look at the event in it’s totality and see how it’s tentacles reached out. There was also riots across the country after the verdict, it wasn’t just LA interestingly and I’d forgotten that too.

One thing I do want to add is what’s a unique about this film is that it’s all archives so there’s no interviews, no narration, no analysis it’s just purely an immersive experience.

Was National Geographic open to this style of documentary filmmaking using only archival footage?

Jonathan: We cut together a mood reel and that got Nat Geo excited because they saw that there was a different way to tell the story that hadn’t been done before that may offer a unique window into the events of 1992. There were absolutely supportive and it was hard to believe we were waiting for the no to come because we were thinking we have to have interviews in this film but that no never came. We were able to essentially make the film we pitched to them which is great. I think when we thought it’d be interesting to tell this story without any interviews, without any commentary of any kind it was a special challenge because you sort of give up a lot of elements of storytelling and it was daunting and not easy to kind of carve a story without those elements we’ve all come to lean on in a certain way. It was a good challenge creatively and we’ll see if it pays off with the viewer.

National Geographic Documentary Films’ LA 92 will premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, followed by its broadcast debut on National Geographic on April 30 at 9/8c.

About Further Base Camp

Go Further with groundbreaking augmented reality, interactive robotic art, concerts, and inspirational talks and interviews, plus a birthday party & Pi-Day celebration for Albert Einstein. See for full program schedule.

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Updated on April 5 to include “LA 92” trailer. 


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