Statement on The Commons at True False

Statement on The Commons at True False

We are the filmmakers of a movie, The Commons, that screened last weekend at the True False Film Fest. Our film captures a small part of the important story of public protests and the successful removal of, Silent Sam, a Jim Crow era Confederate statue, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where we live. After the fourth festival screening of our film on Sunday, Courtney Staton, one of the filmmakers of a powerful documentary, Silence Sam, which documents these same protests from the perspective of the activists, delivered a strong statement against our film.

We take that statement very seriously. We hear the concerns of the activists and understand the importance of listening to them. Further, we sincerely apologize that our film has caused anguish to the individuals who appear in footage from the protests. We recognize that we could have communicated more effectively as we made our film. Although we reached out and offered all of our early footage to support their film, Silence Sam, and let them know we were making a film, we should have made more of an effort to get direct feedback from the filmmakers and activists as we worked to finish The Commons- and included them in the process in a direct way. Our film would have benefitted from their perspective and we hope that it still can. We also want to apologize for referring to Silence Sam as a student film during our Q&A last Friday; we recognize that using that terminology minimized Silence Sam; we think this film is important- and that it should be seen. It is our hope that we can screen our films together in the future.

The Commons is part of large body of work that we have created over that last 20 years. Each of our documentaries are varied and diverse in their subject matters but they are largely connected through a common thread of protest. Each film focuses on individuals challenging a powerful system, often unsuccessfully. Throughout these films, and as part of many other projects, we have spent a great amount of time filming protests. We see The Commons as a continuation of that work. However, the discussion we had on Sunday after the film is an important reminder that as filmmakers, and as people, we can get caught up in our own frames and become blind to important perspectives. At the same time, protests, by definition, take place in public spaces and are designed to be documented. In general, protestors gather to express their words and actions in the hopes that they will inspire others to act and to effect change. We filmed alongside dozens of other people and hoped our footage would help to amplify those voices. The concept of consent to be filmed at a protest is a more recent development and one that we are struggling to figure out how to integrate into our process.

As white individuals, we have a responsibility to challenge our own perspectives and positions of power when filming protests that involve historically marginalized groups. We are committed to understanding these broader perspectives, in relation to our film, and as part of a larger dialogue about documentaries and media in general. We hope that through dialogue we can address concerns within our film and work together to get both films seen and help foster an even more inclusive conversation around these issues.

1 Comment
  • Janice Norlin
    Posted at 21:10h, 06 March Reply

    I was in the audience last Sunday. We’ve been coming to T/F from Salina, Kansas for 15 years. This maybe, by far, the most memorable Q&A!
    I think it’s important to note that the film was viewed at the Jesse Auditorium on the MU campus.

    I would also say that I am a 65-year-old white feminist who sees herself as not only an ally to the black struggle but also a casualty of the death of civility in public and private society.

    I agree with Ms. Staton that there is no such thing as objectivity. I do not think objectivity is a goal and have always advised my students that they don’t have to think like me, but they do have to think.

    In my view, the filmmakers more than succeeded in “building a convincing transcendent elegy for the loss of civil public dialogue in society.” Halfway through the film I felt embarrassment and sadness for all sides of the struggle, including the side I most identified with. The filmmakers more or less pointed their camera and let it do the work. A film editor’s job is to make the tough decision about what to include, otherwise we’d be subjected to 9 hours of raw footage.

    I personally think that it would have been a mistake and outside the scope of their project for the filmmakers to “get direct feedback from the filmmakers and activists as we worked to finish The Commons- and included them in the process in a direct way.” Practically speaking it would be unwieldy for the filmmakers to portray ALL of the perspectives, other than the way they did. In fact, at several points during the film I found myself wondering if the filmmakers were trying to portray a false equivalency by including so much of all the sides…my bias.

    We all benefit when the response is exactly what the student/activists have done— make another film, from their perspective. The more perspectives the better. I look forward to seeing “Silence Sam.”
    Janice Norlin

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