on March 5, 2010
This killing occurred in “late 2005,” according to the scribbled notes crumpled inside the casing of his minitape.
The rest of the gray areas in Mark Wassberg’s memory are colored in by the images on his camera’s flip screen.
He waited on a dark street that night, sitting in his ’66 Chevy Pickup, ear tuned to the squawks of his police scanner. Waiting for action. The next take in his reel.
But this time he would need no direction. The action came to him.
“It was just like pow, pow, pow, pow, maybe like 10 shots real fast, like automatic,” Wassberg said in a hyper staccato that suggested the event happened moments before, instead of nearly 5 years ago. “I ducked down real fast man in my truck, I was really scared that time.”
Minutes later, police raced past, and Wassberg tailed them to the scene at Sixth Street and Chanslor Avenue.
“I got there, man, and he was already gone,” Wassberg said. He didn’t have the victim’s name, but described him as in his mid-20s. “He was laying in the street and his mom was already out there crying. I got footage of everything.”
On Tuesday, the unemployed auto mechanic was in the streets again, this time showing his macabre footage under a gleaming lamp post in the parking lot of a North Richmond Walgreen’s.
Wassberg, 53, is a Richmond High School graduate, class of 1975. He still has that ’66 Chevy, but mechanical and financial setbacks mean it now serves as his home more than his mode of transportation. He scrapes together cash by gathering recyclables.
Wassberg sees himself as Richmond’s prodigal-son-to-be, a self-taught documentary filmmaker who hopes to parlay his unvarnished street reels into Hollywood fame.
“This is history, man, I’m the only one that’s doing this,” said Wassberg, who is stocky and hyperkinetic, with a heavy tuft of gray-flecked, curly brown hair. “I could make millions.”
Wassberg seems relatively uninterested in more subtle storytelling techniques for portraying his town. He talks in terms of images and shock value, not the usual Hollywood themes of struggle, redemption and rebirth. Introspection can be done better by someone else, he suggests in a roundabout way (“I don’t know why this stuff happens?”). To hear Wassberg tell it, Richmond’s streets are gripped in grim chaos, a nihilistic dystopia teetering on the edge of collapse.
Cinema vérité unfettered by nuance.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, yeah,” he blurted while fast-forwarding through footage, fishing for the next ghastly scene. “I love to be where the action’s at.”
Fiddling with his hand-held video camera and a slew of tapes he shoulders around in a dingy backpack, Wassberg reveals stark images of bodies and yellow police tape, the scenes soaked in the reds and blues of streaking police-siren lights. It’s the jolting immediacy of a television news flash, again and again. The ethos of the streets, writ large and one-dimensional, in glaring shades. He estimates he has more than 10 hours of “quality footage.”
“I just need to get at a steady work station, work with Final Cut Pro,” he said, referring to the popular movie-making computer software.
Most of the footage was captured during late-night forays with a police scanner and video camera. Wassberg said he’s been on a few ride-alongs with local police, but the department won’t give him any more access.
Wassberg knows his curbside, siren-chasing reportage blurs the line between unsparing realism and unfeeling sensationalism.
“I’m a filmmaker, and this stuff is off the hook,” he said.
Meanwhile, Richmond residents and leaders struggle to keep violence at bay. Last year, 47 homicides were recorded in the city.
Wassberg said he is nearly finished gathering video, and wants to focus on the editing process. On Saturday he plans to film a local march against violence, an event prompted by a Feb. 14 shooting in a local church.
“I just roamed 24-7,” he said. “And I got what nobody else got.”
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