By Joshua Axelrod
Source Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The title "Pittsburgh Police Series" was enough on its own to make Will Zavala stop in his tracks.
All it took was the 60-year-old Friendship resident and veteran documentarian stumbling across a few black-and-white clips of real Pittsburgh Police officers on the job to make him want to learn more about what he was seeing. It turned out that in the late 1960s, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police participated in a Brandeis University project and allowed filmmaker John Marshall to tag along as officers went about their day-to-day business.
Most of the footage was shot on the North Side over the course of nine months and provided an unfiltered look into how police officers interacted with the community they serve circa that specific time period. It was cut into a series of short films totaling more than five hours in length that over the years have been used by various police departments and law schools as training material.
No one ever got around to screening the "Pittsburgh Police Series" publicly in the place where it was filmed, though — until now.
Starting Friday and running through Sept. 28, Pittsburghers can catch the Steel City premiere of what is now being called "Pittsburgh Police 1969" at Downtown's Harris Theater. The footage has been split into two feature-length segments, with the first part premiering Friday and the second making its debut Saturday. Tickets to those screenings and subsequent ones are available for $11 at trustarts.org.
Following the Friday screening, the Harris will host a panel discussion called "Cops and Cameras" focusing on the role body cameras and cell phones have played in the evolution of policing and criminal justice. The Saturday screening will be accompanied by a similar conversation dubbed "Cameras as Witness," which will zero in on how videos of police work are used as evidence in courts of law.
Zavala is a San Diego native with a psychology degree from University of California, Santa Cruz, and a master's in communication from Stanford University. He moved to Pittsburgh in 2003 and spent 13 years with the now-defunct Pittsburgh Filmmakers. That's where he first became acquainted with Joseph Morrison, who is now the venue manager and programmer for the Harris Theater.
"It's a perfect partnership, me and Will," Morrison said. "We like bringing this kind of stuff to Pittsburgh audiences."
It's the "rawness and the more immediacy" of documentaries that Zavala has always gravitated toward over narrative filmmaking. For the last 16 years, he has headed a group called The Documentary Salon, which meets monthly to discuss documentaries they've enjoyed and show off their own work in that space.
One can easily imagine why something like the "Pittsburgh Police Series" would immediately grab Zavala's attention. Between the ways in which race seems to "overlay everything you see in these films" and all the "examples of police overreach but also police restraint" on display, he had a hunch that Pittsburghers would be as captivated by this footage as he was.
"There's a certain informality that you don't see today," he said. "They have closer to casual conversations it seems, like with the people they encounter. They look different too. They just have shirts on. They're not as built up with body armor and equipment."
After renting the "Pittsburgh Film Series" footage from the distribution company Documentary Educational Resources and receiving a Heinz Endowments grant to show it locally, Zavala decided that the Harris Theater was the perfect venue for its Pittsburgh run. It helped that the Harris was quite possibly the only theater in town still capable of projecting 16mm film stock and that he already had such a tight relationship with Morrison.
Morrison said that the Harris "is doing relatively well" these days in terms of business and that the audience is skewing younger than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic. For a theater known for its eclectic film selection that can range from a Three Stooges Festival to the Senegalese thriller "Saloum," something like "Pittsburgh Police 1969" is right up the Harris' alley.
"What we do at the Harris is really about community," Morrison said. "There's a really great and diverse audience in Pittsburgh of people who enjoy coming to a theater to see challenging material. The ' Pittsburgh Police' series goes to the heart of what we do at the Harris.
"Sitting in an audience in a darkened theater watching all these events unfold and then having a moment to turn to your seatmates and say, 'That was crazy!,' is what the theatrical experience is all about. And this embodies that to the fullest."
As Zavala put it, "some issues are timeless," including the "natural imbalance and even distrust" between law enforcement and the communities in which they operate. He's hoping there will be enough interest in "Pittsburgh Police 1969" to spark some serious conversations about how this footage from more than half a century ago can still be used to inform modern police work.
If nothing else, he believes there's a "definite nostalgia factor" inherent to this rare peek at a Pittsburgh from a bygone era.
"You're going to see a Pittsburgh that might be familiar in some ways and different in other ways," Zavala said. "It's a really fascinating glimpse at the city."
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