Tuesday, November 14, 2017

'Charlottesville: Our Streets' Premieres as Work-in-Progress at Va. Film Festival

Virginia Film Festival 2017 Charlottesville Our Streets
Having its world premiere at the Virginia Film Festival exactly three months after the events of August 12 that it portrays, the Rashomon-like "Charlottesville: Our Streets" appears while psychic and physical wounds are still raw and the political repercussions -- especially for local government -- have not yet been fully played out.

The program notes provided by the Virginia Film Festival are deceptively understated:
A stark look at the devastating events that transpired in Charlottesville in August of this year, there will be much to discuss after this screening. A team of local filmmakers, photographers, and journalists has compiled footage and stills from over 30 cameras, with 20 interviews from first-person witnesses from the fateful Unite The Right rally of August 12th. The country watched as white supremacists’ demonstrations violently escalated, resulting in multiple injuries and the death of Heather Heyer. This feature documentary is an objective observation how the events unfolded, delivering a stark and sometimes brutal telling of individual truths from the perspectives of the people who were there.
Washington Post reporter Joe Heim listed the questions posed by "Charlottesville: Our Streets" in a front-page Metro section story in Sunday morning's editions.
...how that August weekend in Charlottesville will be most remembered is now in the hands of many different storytellers who will shape a shared history. Will it be seen primarily as the place where an ascendant white power movement came out of online nooks and crannies and showed its face to the world? Will it be remembered for those who took to the streets to stand up to the marchers and keep their rally from taking place? Or will it be recalled as a failure of leaders and police to keep the two sides apart and prevent a deadly outcome?
On Sunday afternoon in front of a packed house at the Paramount Theater, the producers of "Charlottesville: Our Streets," Jackson Landers (who also wrote the script) and Brian Wimer (who also directed), participated in a post-screening panel discussion moderated by radio host Coy Barefoot, along with journalist colleague Natalie Jacobsen -- who helped collect and sort the hundred of hours of video clips so they could be reviewed and chosen through a systematic process -- and two interview subjects from the film.

The movie drew both applause and jeers as it featured comments from both the neo-Nazis and Confederate nostalgists who invaded Charlottesville for the so-called "Unite the Right" rally over the weekend of August 11-12, and various counterprotesters from the clergy, antifa, and regular folks opposed to racism and anti-Semitism.

Landers and Wimer endeavored to be as objective as possible, letting the interviews and images tell the story and putting the burden of drawing conclusions on the audience, whose members are intelligent enough to interpret what they see.

Using a combination of talking-head interviews and "found footage" from among hundreds of hours of video taken by dozens of amateur and professional photographers on the scene that day, "Charlottesville: Our Streets" shows the chaos and the violence in a nearly unfiltered manner. Much of the video has not been previously seen by anyone other than those who took it, and one takeaway is that what did make its way to television news programs pulled its punches.

Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Monday, Tony Farrell described the film as
an astounding feat of bootstrapping journalism: a near-definitive visual chronicle of a day that spun slowly but wildly out of control, told through the mostly dispassionate points of view of countless cameras that captured all sides of the action.
He added:
Landers and Wimer also conducted 32 interviews with people who took part in or witnessed the violence that day — pastors, peace activists, Charlottesville residents and even members of the white supremacist groups that descended on the city for the long-planned Unite the Right rally to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in the center of town.

Landers and Wimer, longtime area residents unacquainted before Aug. 12 but both witnesses to the day’s brawling and mayhem, connected in the weeks after the violence and saw the value in documenting events they felt had been incorrectly reported or misrepresented through rumor-mongering and conspiracy theories.
In a report for public radio station WCVE, veteran Charlottesville journalist Hawes Spencer sampled the opinions of audience members at Sunday's screening. He found three widely different reactions:
Militia member Daniel Bollinger appears in “Our Streets” and attended its premiere. “It’s almost undescribable because it brings back so many memories from that day.”

Filmgoer Jim Hingeley says the picture succeeds. “It pulled it all together in a coherent way.”

However, transgender activist Emily Gorcenski finds the film unfair. “This drive towards objectivity is just enabling the side that wants to kill all Jewish people.”
Speaking of local journalists, a few of them are interviewed on screen.  Chris Suarez of the Daily Progress and Lisa Provence of C-VILLE Weekly both describe what they saw that Saturday morning.  (WCHV radio host Joe Thomas is seen arguing with a protester in a video clip.)

Charlottesville Our Streets Jackson Landers Brian Wimer
One thing I learned from the film was that the violence on August 12 was much worse than I had thought, based on the TV news reports I had seen; "Our Streets" shows clearly how the local and state police failed to intervene when the street fights began, standing at a distance and observing without taking action. As former Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris says in an interview in the film, anyone who asserts there was no "stand-down" order is being "deceitful."

I earlier referred to "Charlottesville: Our Streets" as Rashomon-like, and this is borne out by its multiple points of view. One of the things that struck me was how, in almost every shot, there were several other cameras making their own recordings of the same scene from different angles. What those photographers captured could well compose another movie from which entirely different conclusions could be drawn.

"Charlottesville: Our Streets" does not yet have a distributor, but the producers hope to take it to other film festivals and to college campuses around Virginia and beyond. A "pay-what-you-can" screening is tentatively planned for next month. The filmmakers' aim is to return Charlottesville's name to what it was before it became a hashtag.

Full disclosure: Jackson Landers and I, along with Shaun Kenney, are weekly guests on Coy Barefoot's radio program on 94.7 WPVC-FM in Charlottesville, where we discuss local, state, and national politics for an hour beginning at 5:00 o'clock each Monday afternoon. The events of August 12 have been a frequent topic of our conversation since even before they occurred.  On November 13, with Jeff Lenert substituting for Shaun Kenney, we spent more than an hour in a panel discussion about the panel discussion.  Listen to the podcast.


Note: This post is adapted and expanded from a previous article on Bearing Drift by the same author.

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