Tickets go on sale on Friday, February 19th


Thu Feb 27, 2020 – 7:30 pm | Hendricks Arts Center
Sat Feb 29, 2020 – 12:00 pm | La Casa Grande

The Road Up

Directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
Documentary Feature
USA | 93 min | 2020

The Road Up follows four participants in Cara, a Chicago job-training program, as they seek to make the long journey from rock bottom to stable employment. Throughout, they are guided, goaded, and challenged by their impassioned mentor, Mr. Jesse, whose own complicated past drives him to help others find hope in the face of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and trauma. Taken together, their stories create a powerful mosaic of the struggles millions of Americans face every day in a precarious and unforgiving economy, the daunting and often interconnected challenges that prevent so many from getting—and keeping—a job. Because when all that’s behind you is wreckage, and everything in front is an obstacle, how do you find the road up?

The moderated Q&A session with filmmakers from:

The Road Up

The Road Up begins in January 2016, when our characters’ histories, habits, and choices have brought them all—along with twenty-five other Chicagoans—to the same place: a large conference room at Cara, a highly regarded job training program in the city’s South Loop. Cara provides services and opportunities for adults who face barriers to employment. Its goal is to place their “students” in jobs they’re expected to hold for at least a year. But first, every Cara participant has to get through a month-long “boot camp” called Transformations. And that’s where Mr. Jesse comes in.

Equal parts preacher, teacher, comedian, and coach, Jesse Teverbaugh developed and runs the Transformations class. Jesse treats every four-week session like a boxer entering the ring, exhausting himself in an effort to spark some hope in the hearts of his students, a sense of possibility that most have long since lost. For many, he becomes a surrogate father, building them up, but also calling them out. While profoundly sensitive to the pain and trauma they’ve endured, he has little patience for excuses. It’s a “tough love” approach—emphasis on “love”—firmly grounded in the reality of the jobs he’s preparing them for. He knows they have no safety net, no room for error; one misstep—showing up late for work, mouthing off to a supervisor—can get them fired, reigniting a cycle that might land them back in a shelter, a trap house, or a prison cell.

Jesse’s lessons form the narrative spine of The Road Up. Some are designed to unleash long-suppressed emotions. Others are cautionary tales. What connects them all is his insistence that it’s not “job skills”, traditionally defined, that will transform his students’ lives, but rather the fundamentally human ingredients that are all too often ignored in programs like this one: connection, community, self-control, love, and most importantly, hope. These lessons are then reflected in the lives of our four “student” characters—Kristen, Alisa, Clarence, and Tamala—whose journeys during and after Transformations are woven throughout the film.

When we began pre-production on The Road Up back in 2014, our goal seemed fairly straightforward: to capture the inner workings of a successful job training program, while upending stereotypes about a population too easily—and too often—ignored. Six years in, that goal still guides the project, but as inevitably happens, our deepening engagement with both our characters and the issues they face has added scope and nuance to what we hope to communicate.

Even before COVID-19, a staggering number of American workers were trapped in a kind of economic purgatory, unable to get—or keep—a job that could help them escape poverty. Now, the pandemic has left millions more unemployed, exposing the precariousness of the workforce, and magnifying the urgency of job training as an issue.

But what can be done? On the one hand, these challenges are the result of huge, systemic forces: racial segregation, mass incarceration, epidemics of addiction, technological change, inequality, and a frayed social safety net. On the other hand, none of these problems will be solved by tomorrow morning, and we all have to get through the day.

Like the issue itself, Cara exists right at the intersection of the personal and the structural. For the population it serves, the obstacles are so varied and hard to overcome that the formula most traditional job training programs follow—acquire some skills, find a job, and everything else will fall into place—simply doesn’t work. Often, it’s easier to return to the familiar chaos of life in the streets, or succumb to the omnipresent beast of addiction, than to adjust to the constraints and stresses of the workplace.

That’s why Cara’s model is so timely and compelling. It essentially flips the script on the traditional formula, making the case that the first step on the road up isn’t finding employment, it’s finding hope, connection, and community. What some dismiss as “soft skills,” Cara calls “harder skills”: conflict resolution, impulse control, even the ability to express love and accept it in return. To Cara, these are the essential skills that give their students the resilience they need to persist, and ultimately to thrive. By explicitly and emphatically stressing the “love” in “tough love,” Cara’s model pointedly critiques how we approach the entire issue of job training in America, essentially asking the question, “what if we’ve had it wrong all along?”

By capturing the emotion and complexity of our characters’ struggles, we hope The Road Up will spur audiences to question their own assumptions about the population Cara serves, and what can and should be done to help them. In many ways, we have come to see The Road Up as the third installment of a kind of accidental trilogy, an ongoing story we didn’t even realize we were telling. While our previous feature documentaries—Louder Than a Bomb and No Small Matter—seem to have little in common with this one in terms of style and subject matter, they all deal in one form or another with innovative ways to address urgent issues of poverty, inequality of opportunity, and isolation. And yet the theme that truly connects them is about as old as it gets—the transformative power of connection, community, and love.

The Road Up - Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel are the co-founders of Chicago-based Siskel/Jacobs Productions.

Most recently, Greg and Jon co-directed (with Danny Alpert) No Small Matter, the first feature documentary to explore the power and potential impact of early childhood education. Completed in late 2018, No Small Matter has already begun moving the needle on the issue at a national scale, through hundreds of screenings and an ambitious impact campaign.

Prior to No Small Matter, Greg and Jon produced and directed the documentary feature Louder Than a Bomb, which follows four Chicago-area high school poetry teams as they prepare to compete in the world’s largest youth slam. The winner of 17 festival prizes, including 10 audience awards, Louder Than a Bomb was hailed as “one of the 10 best documentaries of 2011” by Roger Ebert, and received a perfect 100% rating on In January of 2012, Louder Than a Bomb had its world television premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network, as an official selection of the “OWN Documentary Club”. The film was also selected for the U.S. State Department’s 2011 American Documentary Showcase, and received the 2011 Humanitas Prize for documentaries.

In 2008, SJP produced the landmark History Channel special 102 Minutes That Changed America, which reconstructs—in real time—the events of 9/11 in New York City, using only sound and video from that morning. More than five million viewers tuned in to the premiere, making it the most-watched special in the network’s history, and the program has now been seen by over forty million viewers worldwide. 102 Minutes won three Primetime Emmys, including Outstanding Nonfiction Special, as well as the Most Innovative Program Award at the 2009 History Makers International Summit, a CINE Masters Series Award, a Silver Telly, and a FOCAL International Award. It was also named the Best Nonfiction TV Episode of 2008 by iTunes.

SJP produced six episodes of the “Witness” series for the National Geographic Channel, including Witness: Katrina, which won the 2011 News and Documentary Emmy for Outstanding Historical Programming. Jon and Greg also wrote, directed and produced Head On, a two-hour special about the obsessive subculture of “team demolition derby” in Joliet, Illinois, which aired on Discovery in December 2006.

In 2016, SJP produced the documentary Unexpected Justice: The Rise of John Paul Stevens, which premiered on WTTW in Chicago and aired on over 200 PBS stations around the country. Jon and Greg also served as the U.S. Executive Producers of 1916: The Irish Rebellion, a three-part documentary series narrated by Liam Neeson that commemorated the centennial of the Easter Rising. The series, which aired around the world in 2016, won the American Public Television Programming Excellence Award, along with the Irish Film and Television Academy’s award for best documentary series. In 2018, SJP served as Executive Producers on Grace, an award-winning documentary short directed by Rachel Pikelny.

Greg is a 2016-2017 New America Fellow and the author of Getting Around Brown, a history of school desegregation in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Jon is the former board president of Free Spirit Media, a Chicago youth media organization, and a graduate of Beloit College.

Film Information

Director: Greg Jacobs & Jon Siskel
Country: USA
Year: 2020
Language: English
Runtime: 93 min.
Rated: PG-13


Producer: Rachel Pikelney
Co-Producer: Amy Ostrander
Composer: Joshua Abrams
Editor: John Farbrother

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BIFF - Beloit International Film Festival
BIFF | Beloit International Film Festival