Hartford-based documentary filmmaker Jennifer Boyd and her crew took their cameras out on the road — and almost got hit.
In a scene from her new film The Street Project, one of Boyd’s camera operators is shown crossing a street at a legal crossing, only to have a car come too close to hitting him. The car doesn’t even slow down.
“We were at a crosswalk in Phoenix,” Boyd recalls. “We had only been in town for about 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe how cars were speeding past him.”
“The Street Project” began airing on public television stations on August 25. Boyd will host a screening of the film at Real Art Ways on Sept. 1, followed by a question-and-answer session.
“The streets touch everything,” says Boyd, who runs her production company out of the same Arbor Street building that houses Real Art Ways.
The 52-minute documentary shows the many ways roads have become less safe in the last century or so. Cars (and aggressive drivers) dominate streets that once knew how to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians. Traditional city planning strategies are outdated and may negatively impact some already disadvantaged communities.
After determining the key issues she wanted to focus on in the documentary, Boyd took her team to such far-flung locations as Phoenix amid heated zoning debates and proposed new fines aimed at pedestrians; and Copenhagen, Denmark, which is considered one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world.
Aside from an alarming scene filmed outside her West Hartford home in which young children are lined up in front of a parked SUV until the driver can see them behind the wheel — it takes 10 children before they’re noticed — Boyd did not. use Connecticut locations.
“We had talked about getting Connecticut involved,” she says, acknowledging the amount of activism here, “but we weren’t able to.” However, she says, the places and people she depicts are representative of many cities. Indeed, statements about the dangers one-way streets pose to pedestrians may apply in some Connecticut cities.
“The Street Project,” with its sweeping views of cities and deserts and footage taken from the handlebars of bicycles and the front seats of cars, is worthy of a big screen. The screening of Real Art Ways will be the first time the documentary will be shown in a cinema.
The documentary begins with a series of TV news stories about pedestrians being hit and killed by cars. It’s a montage of remarkably similar reports, without needing to identify where they occurred, because the film quickly makes it clear that this is a widespread problem.
“More than one million people die in traffic-related accidents worldwide every year,” a narrator, Los Angeles-based actress Maya Aoki Tuttle, declares at the start of the documentary. “Half of these deaths involve people outside the car: pedestrians and cyclists. Deaths have been on the rise over the past decade, so we assumed people must be glued to their cell phones and wandering in traffic.
“Well, we were wrong. According to data available over the past six years, less than 1% of pedestrian fatalities involve portable electronic devices. So why is this happening and what can we do about it? Welcome to The Road Project, a story about the citizen-led global fight to make our roads safer.”
Boyd was inspired to make The Street Project in part because of another documentary she made four years ago about distracted drivers, 3 Seconds Behind the Wheel.
“It was about how we behave inside the car and it was quite well received, so we decided to cover the distractions outside the car: how fast we drive, what kind of cars we drive, how the roads are designed.”
The basic concept of road safety led to “months of nonstop research,” Boyd says, and a desire to approach the subject in a positive way if possible.
“We didn’t want to do another horrible story about death. We tried to create change, so we ended up in places with vocal activists. New York has one of the oldest activist organizations [for pedestrians and bicyclists]. Phoenix had conflict and tension around the issues going on at the time.”
The Street Project also demonstrates the very real dangers of crossing the street and discusses how “pedestrian shaming” and jaywalking laws have distorted the reality that motorists, not cyclists or pedestrians, are the cause of most road accidents .
“Low-income communities are more vulnerable to traffic violence,” New York City activist Dulcie Canton says in the film. Speck, the city planner, notes that “fully 39% of those people who commute by bike are in the lowest 25% of incomes.”
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the production of “The Street Project” but it also ended up being a valuable part of it. Closing roads and turning them into crosswalks as a safety measure for COVID-19 illustrates how quickly such changes can happen when needed.
“The pandemic showed us that it wasn’t hard to change and create safe communities,” says Boyd.
Boyd’s manufacturing company is based in Hartford. She has made dozens of documentaries. From 2008 to 2016 she produced television concert series filmed at Infinity Hall in Norfolk and Kate in Old Saybrook.
Some of Boyd’s documentaries, such as her current five-film series on the history of Las Vegas, have been commissioned by other producers. Others, like this one, were conceived and produced by Boyd and her team. Boyd is credited as the director, co-writer, co-producer and executive producer of The Street Project, as well as providing “additional photography.”
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She received a grant from The Travelers that “was really instrumental in getting the project off the ground,” says Boyd. “Then I was able to go to other organizations like 3M and General Motors. From working in public television, I hoped they would take it. PBS International became the main distributor.
“The next step is an impact campaign, where we offer it to nonprofits and grassroots organizations so they can use it to start conversations in the community.”
“The Street Project” screens Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, followed by a question-and-answer session with documentary filmmaker Jennifer Boyd. 6 dollars. realartways.org.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at [email protected].