The viperfish is one of the fiercest predators in the ocean. With gigantic, razor-sharp fangs and a tiny glowing eye, it lures and kills the smaller fish that happen upon its path in the deep sea. Although you may never have seen a viperfish, it is a part of us. It lives in those depths from which we originally came, and if you see a picture of it on a computer even now, your animal self will know instinctually to be afraid and impressed.
In the summer of 2009, I lived in a loft on East Jefferson on the Detroit River. Every morning, I would wake up, walk down to the water, and do a series of stretches taught to me by my friend in response to my complaints of shoulder pain. During these morning stretches, I would invariably study my neighbors. To the right of me was the Coast Guard headquarters, where men in white uniforms, with mops and whistles and shiny boats, would stare at me as I stretched. To my left was a black-and-chrome building with huge lettering on the front that said "Protect Yourself From Predators!" and "Martial Arts!" and "Self-Defense Bodyguards" and "Detroit Threat Management."
In contrast to the Coast Guard station, I never saw anyone come in or out of this black building, and nobody lingered outside to see me stretch my arms. Those doors that never opened are themselves what drew me to ring the doorbell. I was determined to learn what it looked like within this compound. Was the inside as flashy and ostentatious as the façade? Would the people who lived or worked there let me through the gate? Did they know some mystic secrets of violence and safety, aggression and protection, that were the key to survival? When I pressed the button, a recording sounded through a loudspeaker: "Welcome to the Threat Management Center. You are Trespassing." The door opened, and I was let inside. And I never looked back.
Three years and hundreds of hours of footage later, a documentary film has come out of those doors. Detroit Threat Management is the story of the time I spent with Commander Brown and his VIPERS. You might say this was too much time spent in the presence of men and women who dress in camouflage and flack jackets and drive around Detroit in black Hummers with loaded automatic weaponry, protecting Detroit, as they will tell you, "from predators." For me, the opportunity to explore the murky gray space between public service and private enterprise was gratifying and rich. But it was more than that. The images they so fully embody, of masculinity and violence, of superheroes on a never-ending fight against evil, of highly-trained futuristic commandoes armed to the teeth, spoke to me on a primordial level. My inner viperfish was calling, and I answered by aiming a video camera at it.
In 2011 I received a grant from the Edes Foundation to finish the project, and so I followed the VIPERS full-time as they patrolled the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and protected the homes of the city's poorest residents, as they trained and fought and fell in love with one another. Besides working with a truly gifted crew of filmmakers and musicians, I worked on this film with the community of Detroit in small public screenings throughout the editing process during events called Focus Nights.
This Saturday, Detroit Threat Management is premiering in its feature length form, and I'm proud and honored to present it to the community that inspired and supported its creation.
"Detroit Threat Management" premiers Saturday, Dec. 15 at 7 p.m at the Jam Handy building, 2900 E. Grand Blvd. The screening will be followed by a reception with photography by Dan Epstein and a panel with the VIPERS' Commander Brown and former Detroit Police Commander James Jackson.