By Natalie Jeffery
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
John Benam looks at real life through the camera lens.
The 43-year-old Baltimore resident is a cinematographer and political activist who has completed four local documentaries over the past five years that touch on everything from policing in his hometown to the Syrian refugee crisis.
His latest two films, “This is Home” and “Charm City,” will be released later this year at the Maryland Film Festival. The first documentary focuses on four families of Syrian refugees who settled in Baltimore while the second film uncovers the relationship between one of Baltimore’s minority communities and the police in the years following Freddie Gray’s death.
“I like shaking the trees,” Benam said. “I have no problem doing things that upset people that are in power who try to control the message.”
Benam did not start out as a filmmaker.
When he started his undergraduate program at Towson University in 1994 he had a passion to teach history. After taking an introduction film class, though, his career path took a turn. He became obsessed with becoming the “camera department dude.”
Following college Benam received a job at Chesapeake Camera. The job allowed him to network and get his foot in the door at National Geographic.
For eight years, Benam worked as a coordinating producer at National Geographic until he created Benam Films, Inc., in 2009.
Benam said his work finds him. Colleagues and friends often ask him for assistance on developing projects or refer him to others who are looking for cameraman.
Benam now spends his days traveling the country and world creating both nature films and human-interest documentaries.
Sticking to his Baltimore roots, Benam has filmed four documentaries about his hometown.
Two Baltimore-based documentaries include “12 O’Clock Boys” and “The Keepers.”
“12 O’clock Boys” was the first film he was part of to have a theater release.
The documentary, filmed in 2013, tells the story of a young boy who idealizes a group of illegal dirt bike riders in the city. With no male role model in his life, the boy becomes mesmerized by the riders as well as set on becoming one.
“Riding with the pack [group of dirt bike riders] was one of the most memorable things of filming in Baltimore,” Benam said.
He said he set up a camera on the back of a pickup truck and rode around the city with the group for two hours. The crew had to cover the back window to make sure the police could not identify them, Benam said.
“The Keepers” is a series that brings to light an unsolved murder and grotesque string of sexual abuse at a local private school— Archbishop Keogh High.
The film received good reviews, with a top critic of Rotten Tomatoes calling it a “measured” and “sober” look at a dark side of society.
Benam said it is crucial to build relationships with the human subjects when filming series projects like these. Benam said it is just as important to build a relationship with the community off camera as it is on camera.
He said human subjects often question the crew’s subjectivity and commitment. It isn’t until they have a deeper understanding of the goal of the film and judgment of the crew’s character that the people begin to trust and open up, Benam said.
Benam said he enjoys the hard truth behind social justice stories.
“I’m willing to fight the fight,” he said, adding that he hopes his work will change people’s perspective in a positive way. If he compels viewers to act or help change policy, he said he has succeeded.
He said he feels the same way about his nature films.
And his work paid off. In 2011, he won an Emmy for his cinematography on National Geographic’s TV mini-series, “Great Migrations.”
The key to telling the story, he said, is making sure to frame shots in a way that tells a story as accurately and truthfully as possible.
“While nature is important, these films make nature seem perfect and beautiful. But turn the camera [and] it tells a completely different story,” said Benam, describing how a camera angle can change the truth of a situation.
Benam said society should begin “pulling back the veil. It’s not all peaches and cream.”
Despite the challenges brought on during filming, Benam said the largest challenge he faces is raising his two sons and sustaining a relationship with his wife while working. His work demands a lot of time and travel.
“It sucks if you’re not able to be there for them,” Benam said.
When Benam is home he tries to give back to the community. For example, he said he tries to keep in touch with the refugees living in Baltimore. He asks his friends and family to make donations— things like school supplies and furniture— that he collects and delivers to the refugee families.
Despite his film success he is very accessible.
“John Benam is professional and very easy to work with,” said Tim Whisted, a friend who needed assistance on a personal video project. “His suggestions and changes were outstanding.”