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Meet The Aussie Filmmaker Documenting America's Most Dangerous Areas

Artist, filmmaker and social activist George Gittoes takes viewers into Chicago's notorious Southside with his new documentary, White Light.

Gittoes has dedicated much of his career to illuminating how power and hope gleaned from music can be found in the world's most violent places.

His new film, White Light -- which will screen at the Sydney Film Festival -- documents the Chicago residents caught up in the gun violence epidemic.

To Gittoes, "showing fear is a form of judgment". Accompanied by his longtime partner Hellen Rose and their Afghan-born cameraman Waqar, he ingratiated himself into Chicago's impoverished community of Englewood.

"In the year we spent in the Southside, we didn't see another white person -- except for [priest and activist] Reverend Michael Pfleger," Gittoes told 10 daily.

"I would have been the first white person to go into [gang member] Solja's apartment, which is like headquarters. I didn't show fear but the guys with him, when I first saw them, looked like the scariest people I'd ever seen."

READ MORE: Childish Gambino's This Is America Is A Chillingly Powerful Statement On Gun Violence

White Light features young people caught up in the city's violence like Solja -- a.k.a. "The Prince Of The Streets" -- and aspiring rappers Lil Mac and Lil Dave.

When he arrived in Englewood, Gittoes said he gained his subjects' trust immediately and shot his "first interview within 15 minutes of meeting them".

"They figured out quickly that Waqar and I were not a threat and we could be friends. We're still really close to all of them."

While many U.S cities have high crime rates, Chicago's Southside has worse gun violence statistics than any active war zone of the last two decades.

The Chicago Tribune's live tracker reports there have already been 187 murders in the city this year, with homicides tending to peak in the summer.

Gittoes' White Light documents the Southside Chicago residents caught up in the gun violence epidemic. Image: Sydney Film Festival.

According to the U.S Census Bureau, white people make up almost half of the city's population and live mostly in the city's north, while African-Americans count for roughly 30 percent with a majority living in the south.

"America can't appear to be like South Africa and have apartheid, but there is total segregation," Gittoes said of the city's demographics.

"You go from nice Hyde Park to right next to it, a place where buildings are boarded up and there's a gang on every corner. The fear of these areas maintains a form of absolute apartheid and segregation."

When asked about community sentiment for President Obama -- who began his political career in Chicago -- and First Lady Michelle Obama, a native Chicagoan, Gittoes said there was "extreme disappointment".

"Neither of them did anything and neither of them are still doing anything. I lived there for 18 months. Just as you asked me that question, I've asked them.

"No one has a bad word for them -- especially as the first black President. But they expected a Chicagoan President and First Lady to do something."

Gittoes said there was "extreme disappointment" from Chicagoans in their collective sentiment for President Obama and First Lady Michelle. Image: Taylor Hill/WireImage.

While filming of White Light began in January 2018, the seeds were planted years earlier.

The documentary's title was inspired by Denzell Lovett, a young man featured in Gittoes' 2006 work, Rampage, based on the crime-infested parts of Miami.

"The White Light idea came from Denzell, because he did a rap while he was dying. He saw the white light -- and they brought him back to life. So he actually rapped on the other side, and was able to remember it," Gittoes said.

From left: Elliot Lovett, George Gittoes and Trygah Tryg. Image: Hellen Rose.

While Denzell survived his shooting, his older brother Marcus was tragically killed in Miami during the period Gittoes filmed Rampage.

Gittoes met the eldest Lovett brother, Elliot, when he was an American soldier deployed in Iraq. Elliot was a focal point in Gittoes' 2005 film, Soundtrack To War, which showcased hip-hop as an outlet for soldiers away from combat.

Gittoes and his partner Rose -- who acts as his Music Director -- are currently working on an album with White Light's Lil Mac and Lil Dave. They hope to bring them to Australia in time for the Melbourne Film Festival in August.

The 66th Sydney Film Festival runs from Wednesday 5 June to Sunday 16 June 2019.

Gittoes' portraits of his subjects from White Light are currently on display at Sydney’s Fellia Melas Gallery.

Contact the author: samelia@networkten.com.au.