Essay by Bonnie Yochelson:
5 Days in July: A Video Installation, by Chuck Schultz and Esther Podemski, 2007

Using film footage from television, government, and private archives, Chuck Schultz and Esther Podemski’s 5 Days in July conveys the essential facts of Newark’s 1967 riots.  In ten short minutes, we see black residents living in substandard housing; we meet John Smith, the cab driver whose arrest and beating sparked the disturbance; we hear from activists who express the frustration of Newark’s underemployed black community; we watch as New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes declares the riots criminally – not politically – motivated; we witness the looting, the fires, and the tanks, as well as National Guardsmen shooting long-range rifles into apartment buildings; and, in the end, we see a city in ruins.

This complex series of events is revealed without resort to linear narrative. The viewer sits on a bench in a darkened room, facing a corner.  The presentation consists of two screens, one on either side of the corner; the arrangement forces the viewer to choose between screens, seeing one peripherally while focusing on the other.  The filmmakers exploit the viewer’s split attention with a carefully choreographed sequence of images and words, shifting across screens or back and forth from one to the other.  Sound cues, such as overlapping voice-overs and repeated music and chanting, enhances the effect. The installation presents a metaphor for a lived experience, one in which the viewer struggles to make sense of multiple stimuli, and like the participants, to control the uncontrollable. 

5 Days in July is not politically neutral.  The piece opens with the sound of a gospel-like chorus chanting and clapping, “Freedom,” foreshadowing the demonstrations to come.  Black-and-white scenes of everyday life are then juxtaposed with alarming statistics, such as “38% of Negro men in Newark are unemployed,” and “Newark has the highest percentage of substandard housing in the U.S.”  A never-before-seen interview of John Smith, in which he describes his beating as unprovoked and racist, is shown repeatedly.  As violence in the streets builds, the black-and-white film becomes orange-tinted. At the end, an epilogue by James Baldwin admonishes that “people who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.” But the mood of the piece is more tragic than accusatory, and the dirge-like music of the 1970s jazz-funk group War, which recurs throughout, amplifies the tragedy.
Schultz and Podemski have created a novel and deeply affecting social documentary work.  Although both artists have made documentary films, they brought different strengths to the project – Schultz in sound and Podemski, who is a painter, in visual effects. They were inspired more by politically motivated installation artists, like Polish-born Kzysztof Wodiczko, who uses video projections in public spaces, than by filmmakers like Ken Burns, whose works are seen primarily on television.  Indeed, 5 Days in July steers clear of the “taking heads,” the ponderous music, the dramatic recreations and, most strikingly, the extended length of conventional documentaries.

5 Days in July is as original in our day as Jacob Riis’s lantern slide lectures were one hundred years ago.  Riis was a newspaper writer whose 1890 bestselling book, How the Other Half Lives, brought home to the American public the inhumane conditions and dire consequences of urban poverty.  His book was illustrated with his photographs, but as tiny, smudgy reproductions, they made little impact.  It was as lantern slides, projected life-size in darkened auditoriums, described by Riis and accompanied by music, that these now legendary photographs were truly seen in his day.  Like Riis’ illustrated lectures, 5 Days in July arouses strong emotion and moral outrage, even for today’s media-saturated audiences.

Bonnie Yochelson’s exhibitions, Rest In Peace by Helen M. Stummer and Rebuilding Newark, accompanied 5 Days in July at Aljira, A Contemporary Art Center, Newark, in 2007-2008.  Her book, co-authored with Daniel Czitrom, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn of the Century New York, was recently published by The New Press.