Steven “Smack Stax” Camphor first saw a gun at the age of 7, before he understood the harm they could cause. Years later, he pulled one on a person he was trying to rob. In 2005, his brother was shot to death. And in the summer of 2013, Smack was shot in his hometown of Washington, D.C. The bullet pierced his left buttock, tearing through his stomach before lodging in his right hip.
“Bullets Without Names” is a short documentary that features the 23-year-old Smack grappling with the aftermath of the shooting. Since it was released four years ago, the film has screened at festivals, academic conferences, and even abroad in Haiti and Cuba. Despite its age, the film offers a nuanced, intimate portrayal of recovering from a traumatizing injury — a small window into the experiences of the tens of thousands of Americans who are shot every year, and survive.
The black-and-white film opens with Smack’s tattooed hand gripping a pen as he writes in a spiral notebook. The non-linear narrative shifts between his first days recuperating in the hospital — a tube looped under his nose, he talks animatedly about getting home to his family — to a few months later, as he walks through a residential area, dragging on cigarettes and looking tough against brick walls. Contrasting with that hardened exterior, Smack’s scratchy voice narrates his inner thoughts, worries, and ambitions, like a freestyle audio diary.
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The film is brief, only eight minutes total, but it touches on several obstacles Smack faced in convalescence. At one point he removes his shirt to reveal a colostomy bag. The small pouch is attached to his abdomen and collects human waste — a medical necessity for some gunshot survivors that can carry intense shame. Smack says the bullet damaged the area around his rectum and his intestines. Later in the film, he discusses re-learning to walk in rehab and returning to the hospital for a follow-up surgery.
Grievous physical injury aside, the shooting also affected Smack’s psyche. He doesn’t want his 5-year-old son to see him in the hospital. Upon returning home, he’s startled when the boy comes at him with a water pistol. “That kinda messed me up in the head,” he says in the film. He swallows pills to blunt the pain, but feels like they aggravate his paranoia and give him loopy dreams, where he’s constantly fleeing or fighting somebody.
The film was written, shot, and edited by Amberly Alene Ellis, who met Smack through Joseph Richardson, a professor at University of Maryland who studies violent injury among black men. Ellis says she wanted her film to dispel narratives that simplify or glorify violence. “There’s really nothing glorious about having nightmares and…not being able to go to the bathroom.”
As The Trace has previously reported, the care of gunshot survivors often falls to family members or loved ones, at extreme personal and financial cost to the caregiver. For Smack, that person was his grandmother, who’s featured briefly in the film. Parts of the documentary were filmed at her home in Maryland, because Smack didn’t want to be filmed in Lincoln Heights, where the shooting took place. Ellis says she omitted identifying details that Smack was wary about making public. “Anything related to names, neighborhoods, streets, the location of things, were definitely no’s, because we didn’t want [the film] to be something that triggered more violence.”
When The Trace checked in with him last month, Smack, who is now 26, recalled keeping to himself more after the shooting. “I didn’t want to be around nobody at the time,” he said. Being in the film gave him a chance to talk about his experiences.
Smack told The Trace that after being discharged from the hospital he reverted to using drugs. He said he’s clean now, and is focusing on recording his rap music and spending time with his son. Smack said he has undergone four operations since the shooting, including one to reverse the colostomy. He said his hip still aches from time to time, especially when it rains, and he doesn’t play basketball anymore.
“I’ve even seen a lot of films try to focus on the actual physical wound, as a way to scare youth,” Ellis, the filmmaker, said. She wanted her documentary “to not so much focus on the body, and the ‘I survived’ mentality, but more, ‘I’m trying to survive. I’m dealing with this every day.’”