Life-Changing Film

Life-Changing Film

Dontre Hamilton was murdered by a Milwaukee police officer while he was asleep at Red Arrow Park right outside Starbucks. The officer was responding to a complaint, which is why he went up to Dontre...minutes later Dontre was shot 14 times by the officer. 

The Hamilton have made it through a lot of struggle by being there for one another. (Picture by Erik Ljung)

Film maker and California native Erik Ljung decided to film the aftermath of Dontre's killing. He began filming the Hamilton family three years ago, and now his documentary of the family "The Blood is at the Doorstep," is the centerpiece of the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Erik went from not knowing what major to take in college to creating a masterpiece that tells the story of not only Dontre, but his family.

How did Erik get to this point?

For much of Erik's younger life he wanted to be a professional basketball player. It never worked out for him because he didn't like listening to his coaches, yet he lived off being the underdog. He wanted to prove he could do it, but that dream ended his junior year when he put down the basketball and picked up a skateboard. 

Erik's skateboard dreams were short lived, but it did change his life--skateboard videos opened up a new musical world for him. This was also the first time Erik was exposed to a creative world, a world he thought didn't exist. Erik has always had an interest in photo and video, but he didn't think it was a logical possibility. 

He's never been too sure of what he wanted to do in his life. He transferred four times during college and took six years to graduate in 2008 with a major in graphic design. 

The Hamilton family won’t ever stop fighting for Dontre Hamilton. (Picture by Erik Ljung)

"I wanted to major in everything," said Erik. "I didn't have the belief in myself to study film."

Erik moved to Milwaukee because of a past girlfriend, but shortly after moving to the 414 they broke up. During this time, he was working 70 hours a week, sitting in a cubicle. He eventually started his own video series, which lead him to Milwaukee Film Festival where he was lucky enough to work on a documentary with some friends.

He took a week off work to tour with a band. The film ended up being about the experience of being on the road, and once returning to work Erik thought, "Holy shit! This is what I have to do."

Erik took a risk and between the ages of 26-27 he quit his job to chase his dreams. He hit up every still photographer that he knew and asked if he could intern with them, and then he began assisting them. 

His parents usually support him, but they began to question his decisions. Erik's uncle, who's an accountant, told Erik he needed to quit his job, and his granddad wanted him to join the army. 

It's safe to say, Erik listened to his uncle.

"Everything felt like it happened naturally along the way," said Erik. "I never thought I would be a film maker."

Now he has a Midwest Emmy under his belt, and he's produced content and short documentaries for the New York Times, VICE News, Al Jazeera, PBS and the Wall Street Journal.

"Self doubt is normal [but] don't let it hinder what you do."

Now how did Erik get involved with the Hamilton family?

Michael Bell's son was also murdered by a Milwaukee police officer back in 2004. The money Michael won was used to put up billboards that read "When police kill, should they judge themselves?" Erik immediately thought "who would write something like this?" 

Maria Hamilton—Dontre Hamilton’s mother. (Picture by Erik Ljung)

Those billboards stuck in Erik's head, and, then three months before Dontre's death, Erik had just finished working on a short documentary for VICE. 

The film was called VICE News: The Death of Corey Stingley. It was about a high school student who was strangled by three white men after he tried to shoplift alcohol. The alcohol was returned before Corey left the store, yet those three white men still decided to attack Corey. Corey died two weeks later from brain damage. 

It just so happened Dontre died right across from where Erik used to work. With all these connections, it only made sense for Erik to create this film on the Hamilton family. 

He knew this story was way bigger than him, but, he also had doubt if he was the right person to tell their story, yet he went for it. 

Coming from California, Erik didn't have anyone close to him in Milwaukee, so with this film and all the time he spent with the Hamilton's, they became his family.

Erik was so used to being selfish and taking things for granted but with this film he was able to grow as a better human being.

When he first started working on the film, it was a one-man band, and that took an emotional toll on Erik. Whenever he was uninspired, friend Dan Peters kept Erik going. With the help of others, Erik went through 400 hours of footage to produce this film, and he couldn't be prouder. 

He spent three years of his life with the Hamilton family working on this film, and now that it's complete Erik feels a void in his life.

"Who am I," asked Erik. "What do I do now?"

Erik got into film to tell important stories, and with The Blood is at the Doorstep, he knows he's doing his part. 

The film may be finished but Erik is still working on securing distribution--just because the film is done doesn't mean you stop fighting everyday for it, said Erik. 

As of right now, Erik is excited to help his friends with their films, and hopefully he'll be working on another life-changing documentary in the future.

He may be from California but Milwaukee has become home for Erik. 

"I would not be where I am without Milwaukee."

A Proud Immigrant

A Proud Immigrant

Ish takin' over for the 414

Ish takin' over for the 414