Filmmaker Carlos Javier Ortiz Explores Chicago’s Gun Violence and Redemption in ‘We All We Got’

Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church embraces young men who are working to break the cycle of violence during a prayer service. Auburn Gresham, Chicago, 2013

Last year, there were 470 homicides and more than 2,900 people shot in Chicago making it the deadliest city in the U.S., this according to the Chicago Tribune. Directed by Carlos Javier Ortiz, the short documentary We All We Got details the impact gun violence has on communities in the city of Chicago and how those involved confront the challenges they face in their lives every day.

During an interview with Ortiz, a visual artist who uses photography and filmmaking to document political and social issues, Remezcla talked to him about when his interest in gun violence began, why he shot the film in black and white, and what systematic changes in Chicago need to be made to see a decrease in the number of shooting deaths.

We All We Got premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival April 17 at 3:00pm at Regal Cinemas Battery Park. Encore screenings take place April 20 at 5:30pm and April 21 at 9:30pm. A final screening can be seen April 23 at 3:45pm at Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea. 

Talk about why gun violence in Chicago is a topic you wanted to make a film about. What spoke to you about the issues currently happening there?

My interest in this started years ago when I was in high school on the Northside of Chicago. I sat next to another Puerto Rican kid who killed a security guard, also a person of color, in the projects where he lived. One day he was next to me in class and the next he was being perp walked by the Chicago Police. Later, when I began photographing a family who had lost their 10-year-old daughter to an accidental stray bullet that had been fired by someone very close to the family, it made me think about the connections between victims and perpetrators. So, this story has been getting a lot of play right now but my interest in it started way before the national media started talking about it.

As a documentary filmmaker, what do you see your role being in telling this complex story? What did you want to say in nine minutes?

With my short I wanted to convey a feeling of “place.” I wanted to bring a sense of what communities dealt with during the traumatic moments but also during the moments of joy and peace. I also wanted to show the nature, the landscape, and how we’re all connected to it. People like RaRa, a character in the film who was shot in the face when he was eight years old, comes back to his community to reconcile the past. So, I want the film to make us think about stories of reconciliation and redemption.

Carlos Javier Ortiz
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Why did you decide to shoot this film in black and white?

Although I love color, in this film (and the other films I’m working on), I’ve chosen to use black and white largely because of how I grew up. I grew up watching a lot of black and white television, which taught me to see angles, shapes, and tonality. In a way it trained me not to think about color but more about moments within the frame.

As a storyteller, are you able to leave your work behind you and disconnect yourself from something most people would lose sleep over?

First of all, I want to say that I do lose sleep over this. I’ve spent almost 10 years building trust with people and what happens is deeply disturbing to me. One of the children I encountered at one of the funerals I photographed had already been to three funerals of his peers and he wasn’t even 10 years old. That kind of stuff does not go away.

Kids jump off a trampoline during a block party. Auburn Gresham, Chicago, 2010
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Do you think tougher gun laws would help curb gun violence in Chicago? What would you like to see happen in Chicago to help see a decline in shootings?

We don’t really have gun control in this country. Political pundits on the left and the right oversimplify this issue by saying Chicago has the toughest gun laws in the US. I equate this to a dry county that is surrounded by 20 counties that sell alcohol. It’s so easy to get guns in Chicago. All you have to do is drive to the nearest suburb or Indiana. I also think we get caught up in the gun control issue as the only remedy for this when we know that cities in the U.S. have suffered from systematic disinvestment. Chicago just experienced the largest urban school closing in U.S. history, for example, and the highest number of police involved shootings. You can’t just expect communities to thrive when there are no resources, no jobs, no schools. We have to reinvest in our cities if we really want to improve things.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13 – 24, 2016. We partnered with Tribeca to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Latino talent at this year’s fest. Follow our coverage on and