Yesterday, I asked documentary film festival directors Deirdre Haj and Shane Smith to answer the following question:
Was the documentary community guilty of focusing on identity politics too much and thereby (in a small way) contributing to a blind spot in not telling the stories of middle-of-the-road, dispossessed white America, which helped Donald Trump’s alt-right base sweep him and us into the mess we’re now in?
Although their emphasis was somewhat different, I think Haj and Smith are on the same page. They believe emphatically in diversity, but they also represent festivals that serve a diversity of community interests. They are a link between the filmmakers and the audiences, and they are looking for new ways to contextualize and present the films. They don’t seem to think that the films themselves need to change.
Here, I let a filmmaker take on the question. Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army, Trapped) is a highly respected filmmaker, whom I saw speak soon after the election. I was struck by how clear, savvy and, well, humane, she was. “I have never been so disappointed in my country,” she says now. “I tend to be an optimistic person. I believe in the goodness of people. I have seen so much of it. Something broke in me this election.”
Clearly, though, Porter is not broken. I provide her response to the above query in its entirety but I’ll just call out two bits: “I don’t think creativity is a zero-sum game,” she says. That’s one hell of a succinct response to the question. “Listening and being empathetic and respectful has gotten me Jeff Sessions,” she voices. She’s pissed! As we all should.
I think about the questions documentary filmmakers have tackled in the past few years — insight into the Evangelical churches in God Loves Uganda (many white main characters) and Jesus Camp (same) and the struggle for gay rights in The Case Against 8 (white, but they don’t seem impoverished), Tracy Droz Tragos’ fine film, Rich Hill (totally about dispossessed whites), my film[s], Lone Star Nurse, about Elaine, a white nurse in Texas who serves low-income teenagers, a film in progress about opioid addiction in West Virginia…I could go on but I think you get the point: This group is hardly uncovered.
I think the issue is there is also a strong cadre of films that don’t center on white people and that is bothersome to some people. It’s like saying, “All Lives Matter.” Topics choose a filmmaker, not usually the other way around. There is something so interesting, and in my case, something I don’t know enough about and don’t understand that drives me to spend years of my life and considerable time and effort trying to piece together a story.
I think what we’ve learned from this election is that if people want to isolate themselves from the world and from facts, they will. The fact that some people choose to deny climate change, racism, homophobia and other social ills is not going to stop me from telling stories to people who are interested in not living in an echo chamber. Does that mean we should stop producing films about climate change? About homophobia? About black people getting killed by the police? I don’t think creativity is a zero-sum game. You can’t make a person want to learn. So what is meant by do we need to understand this group better? I think if anything we’ve IGNORED their racist behavior, and allowed it to fester until it exploded like cancer across this country. Are we to also understand when they have small-minded politics? Or racist views? Or just understand that they are suffering? Does one excuse the other?
I have spent years in Alabama, Mississippi, rural Texas, the Midwest etc…I understand the Trump voters really, really well. There are plenty of nice people, and I usually enjoy my trips. But as a black filmmaker, I think about whether I’ll be safe in a small town. I know better than to even go some places in Alabama. My (white, native, Alabama) camera crew alerted me to this fact, suggesting we avoid certain places. I’ve dealt with law enforcement who treated me terribly. I’ve had dismissive clerks refuse to believe I’m a lawyer, or subjects address my camera person assuming he was in charge.
In fact, if anything, I may be guilty of worrying too much about how some of these folks might appear in my films, and that it would seem I was being East Coast elitist. If anything, I’ve worried too much about alienating folks who apparently don’t think I have the same rights they do. So I’m not doing that anymore. Listening and being empathetic and respectful has gotten me Jeff Sessions as the enforcer of civil rights laws.
So, in short, no. I don’t think the documentary community is guilty of identity politics, which assumes inherently that directors deliberately choose to ignore stories based on race or gender. I don’t see that happening. And I will continue to make films about issues and people that motivate and inspire me.