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Local filmmaker Chris Ivey listens to unheard community voices in his documentary East of Liberty

Chris Ivey, a normally ebullient filmmaker, sounds stressed. He's on the job for a paying gig, but he's talking by phone about his labor of love.

East of Liberty: A Story of Good Intentions, is Ivey's self-produced documentary. It's his debut feature-length movie, and it's set to premiere in a week. It's also thematically heavier than the short, mostly light-hearted projects he's spent his young career making.

This project began inauspiciously enough. In May 2005, Ivey was in East Liberty to videotape activities surrounding the demolition of East Mall Tower, the high-rise apartment that straddled Penn Avenue. Community organizers had promoted an atmosphere of festivity, including the use of the condemned building as a paintball target. But talking to neighbors, most of them African Americans, Ivey learned that many had mixed emotions.

Ivey kept the tape rolling -- some 80 hours of it, by his count. He found that community opinion reflected a larger ambivalence about a once-thriving neighborhood that misguided 1960s urban-renewal projects had helped lay low. Redevelopment efforts that began with projects such as a new Home Depot (which opened in 1999) inspired hope -- but also prompted fears of gentrification.

One big problem was the treatment of those who'd lived in East Mall and a second demolished high-rise, Liberty Park. Many were forced to leave before replacement housing was built. Ivey largely dedicates East of Liberty to voices that were little heard -- those of the people most directly affected. They include Alethea Sims, the last East Mall resident to be forced out and founder of the group Coalition of Organized Residents, and Oliver Johnson, who relocated to Homewood and is "just trying to get by," says Ivey.

Still, Ivey strove to include all points of view, including those of community development professionals, businesspeople, artists and government officials.

Another problem is whether such issues as gentrification are discussed at all.

"I think it's one of those subject matters that people are really sensitive about addressing," says Ivey. "The city has a history -- if something goes bad, it never really gets addressed, it gets swept under the rug."

Ivey hopes to help break that silence by holding community discussions after the premiere screenings, Dec. 14-17 at East Liberty's Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

Ivey, 34, boasts an impressive resume: music videos for artists including underground rapper J-Live, promotional pieces for such local performance troupes as Attack Theatre, and award-winning TV commercials. Other paying gigs include an ongoing stint doing camerawork for a Connecticut-based production company on a PBS documentary about AIDS and African Americans.

Though largely self-financed, East of Liberty received some support from The Sprout Fund, the Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative and the Pittsburgh Foundation. And despite the work required to make one two-hour documentary, Ivey plans a part two -- mostly about the old redevelopment schemes that got East Liberty in trouble to begin with.

East of Liberty 8 p.m. Thu., Dec. 14-Sat., Dec. 16, and 2 p.m. Sun., Dec. 17. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $10. 412-523-4793

click to enlarge From East of Liberty: Edifice wrecked.
  • From East of Liberty: Edifice wrecked.

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