In Focus: Andrew James on Street Fighting Man


In a new America where the promise of education, safety and shelter are in jeopardy, three Detroit men fight to build something lasting for themselves and future generations. For more information visit

Street Fighting Man is a 2014 SFFS Documentary Film Fund winner.

How did you first discover your subjects, and what made you decide to make a film about them?
In early 2010, I saw Sweetgrass and Last Train Home back-to-back at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. This was a turning point for me. I realized that nonfiction filmmaking could be as beautiful, complicated, cinematic and diverse as fiction filmmaking. Inspired by those films and the work of earlier pioneerslike Frederick Wiseman, I set out to do something cinematic, character-driven and timely. To that end, I began looking for a location that spoke to the themes I was interested in (inequality, self-preservation, community). I was confident that if I found the
 right place, the stories would follow. I was trying to find people who could embody something bigger than themselves - where the environment itself could be a lens through which to understand their humanity - and Detroit seemed like a good place to start looking.

I found Jack Rabbit by way of a great Detroit reporter, John Carlisle, who reports on unique Detroit stories under the pen name Detroitblogger John. He put me in touch with Jack Rabbit who accepted my offer to come to Detroit and meet. We hit it off and I began shooting almost immediately. Our next subject, Luke, actually approached us on the street when we were shooting b-roll. He told us he had scraped together 1500 dollars to buy a former crack house and was living there and fixing it up. We went that night to see the house and I shot what is still his opening sequence of the film. We found our final subject, Deris, at Young Detroit Builders. We went there with the sole purpose of finding a younger male and began meeting with kids in the program. Deris stood out to us immediately. He told us about his new baby and his desire to provide for her, and after a few weeks of getting to know him at school, he invited us to tell his story.

What do you see as the greatest challenges for documentary filmmakers today?
Funding and distribution. Consumer habits and technological advancement are real barriers to sustainable, career-centric nonfiction filmmaking. I want to make films for the rest of my life, but I worry that in order to do that, I’ll be freelancing for the rest of my life too. Outside of a broadcast deal, making money in this business is really hard.


What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?
Thanks in part to the support we’ve received from organizations like the San Francisco Film Society, the Sundance Institute, Film Independent and others, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with some very smart and talented people. I’m surrounded by amazing filmmakers and artists who have given (and continue to give) generously of their time and talents to the project. The opportunity to learn from my collaborators has been one of the most rewarding parts of this process so far. Without them there wouldn’t be a film, especially our two producers, Sara and Katie.

Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society support has had on your film.
Having the support of the San Francisco Film Society gave our team a huge boost in morale at a critical point in the edit. Making a documentary feels a lot like running a marathon and there are times when you need some tangible encouragement. SFFS has a history of supporting amazing projects and it’s an honor to be included in such a strong lineup of films and filmmakers. Thanks to this grant, we are now solidly on track to finish the film by late Summer.