(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)
How many Sundances is this for you?
This will be my third time at Sundance.
Everyone talks about elation at the first time getting in, but what changes about the experience as you become a veteran?
"Elation" is a choice word there, because when I learned, I did feel completely elated. I felt a kind of grand sense of relief and this joy. It has become here perhaps it has always been of some great importance. It is the one festival that even laypeople have heard of. It's kind of in the cultural lexicon -- Sundance. You come to realize that this is a certain affirmation. And yet I'll be very honest: I think that not getting into Sundance in no way diminishes one's work or one's film. But getting into Sundance means that your film will sort of be noticed and considered by a whole lot more people. You may say, "Well, that's pretty facile and superficial on their part," but you come to realize that it's a validation and so in that way, it was a great feeling of relief. It was a hard film. This film, I worked very hard to make, and struggled in different aspects of it, and so getting into Sundance made me feel like all the struggle was worth it.
Describe some of that struggle of making Banished. How did you get started on it, and where did it take you?
My co-producing partner is the Center for Investigative Reporting; they approached me. They knew my work, and they asked me if I was interested in doing a film. And all they really had was a journalist who had researched a number of these incidents where black communities had been expelled from their homes and the land they lived on. And I said that does interest me; I'm kind of curious about that. And then I had to find a film, because there are a number of films that could be made from this basic topic. It took me a while to come up with a thesis that made sense to me based on my body of work, and the thesis I came up with was that there's a lot of friction between black and white communities in America, and we're never quite sure as Americans how to resolve or reconcile these stress points. So I wanted to make a film that explored the question of how you reconcile the past.
But that in and of itself was such a big, broad topic that you say, "What do you do?" And since this journalist had only recently uncovered this history, and I wanted to make a film that was about the present day, I had to begin to investigate the towns in present day. I had to see what are they about -- what's going on. And then looking for incidents and people in various towns that might feed a kind of broader thesis that I had about reconciliation. So that was the first set of hurdles. I think the other big struggle with this film, is that in many ways, I've made three films in one film; each community is really a story unto itself. The story for Forsyth County, Georgia, is related thematically to the story in Pierce City, Missouri, or the story in Harrison, Ark. But by and large there were three autonomous stories. So by and large my ambitions were huge, and it was a much harder film to construct. I wouldn't necessarily say it was constructed in the editing, but it is a harder film to construct because there were three different stories, and I thought to find a way to tell one single narrative.
And then there's always, for me, in these types of films dealing with race relations, it has an emotional impact on me. It affects me personally. This reflects or corresponds to my life as a black American, and so there are certainly different moments in the film that made me pause and think about myself -- think about my own personal experiences made me just kind of... I don't know the best way to put this. It made me ask myself, "Do I even want to go forward with this? This is so fatiguing." Examples might be talking to people in Forsyth County, talking to public officials, talking to white residents there, and their inability to see how they have benefited from what happened in the past. Even if they were not the actual perpetrators of the crime of kicking the blacks out. They were not able to see the personal benefits. You can't persuade somebody of that -- they have to come to that themselves. That tires me, because I feel like if the other party can't see how they benefited, then we're not going to be able to find common ground.
On top of that, you're a filmmaker going into what's essentially a foreign environment with the potential for opposition and confrontation. Just raising the issues alone would seem draining in itself.
Surprisingly, with a story like this, the assumption is that these are racist communities. And to a certain extent, they are. They continue to be all white, and there's a strong racial bias in a place like that. But I would say to you that the biggest obstacle or impediment -- and I'm going to paraphrase something that Martin Luther King said -- is that the issue is not the white citizens council, not the Ku Klux Klan, not the bigoted Southern sheriff. The biggest obstacle and impediment to sort of overcoming the barriers of racism and segregation in America was the white liberal. These were the people, more often than not, who felt like they were good people, and they certainly were, and yet they could not fundamentally see their role in the problem. They could not see fundamentally acknowledge that they might have to give something up -- literally or figuratively -- in order for things to improve.
And so while I always have been able to find my way to meeting people who seem righteous and seem like they're really committed, always somewhere along the way, I discover their own limitations; their own ceiling of their ability to fully understand the situation. A couple of examples: Sitting across from the head of the Ku Klux Klan, you know exactly what you have. As disgusted as it makes me feel to have a conversation with this guy, and to have to hear his views on race, I know what to expect of him. Conversely, sitting across from the head of the Chamber of Commerce who positions herself and the town as being not the town that existed 100 years ago, you look out the window and see the Confederate flag flying. Outside the chamber of commerce! That's the problem. She thinks, "Oh, well, that doesn't mean you're not welcome here. That just represents our history."
So in some ways it's almost more intellectual, but it's really more general because the liberal -- and I'm using this term very loosely -- is supposed to be the partner in opening up these barriers, and often enough the liberal is the person who doesn't see him or herself as part of the problem.
A lot filmmakers would be loath to discuss their film in the context of its potential for political or social change. Where does Banished fit on the spectrum between specific intentions and just generally putting a film out to see what happens?
Well, I don't make films I just put out there to see what happens, though I would say my films aren't overtly political. But they're definitely about the politics of our society, which is race relations. There's no doubt in my mind that this was a very conscious effort to frame some of the challenging questions of how to reconcile the differences between black and white Americans, and the particulars are blacks were displaced by whites. They lost land, they lost property, they lost their homes. How might we redress the past? I'm not advocating one thing or another. But they made a concerted effort to put forth a lot of the possibilities for redress as well as to prove and to understand the obstacles and impediments to achieving redress. So yeah, there is some conscious intent on my part to compel dialogue and discussion about sensitive issues.
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