Flag Wars

PBS Premiere: June 17, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Ask the Filmmakers

Erin in California asks: How were the co-directing duties split? Did one of you cover one side of the in-home interactions strictly, and the other the other? Or did all the participants have close-to-equal exposure to each of you? If the latter, did the African-American residents open up more to Linda than Laura, and vice versa? Thanks.

Linda Goode Bryant: All of the participants had equal exposure to both of us. During the course of filming, the willingness of OTE residents to be frank and forthright in expressing their feelings had less to do with their identification with either one of us because of race and sexual orientation than it did with the relationships we developed with them over the course of four years. Certainly, living full time in the community for about a year and a half helped us develop those relationships.

Laura Poitras: We were very up front about who we were and what the story was about, i.e., what happens in a black working-class neighborhood when gay white professionals buy and renovate houses in the community?

Karen in New York asks: How did you get so much access? Did you know some of these people before?

Goode Bryant: I grew up in the neighborhood and my parents still live there and are the elderly couple featured in their home throughout the documentary. Nina Masseria, Baba Olugbala, and Linda Mitchell we met during pre-production. Jim Yoder and Chuck Spingola, the street minister, we met after we began shooting. It didn't hurt that I could say I grew up in the neighborhood when we introduced ourselves to residents, but it wasn't the deciding factor that gave us access. Living in the community, spending time and building relationships with the "characters" we followed provided us with the access.

Poitras: When people ask, "how did you get the access," I answer, "we asked." Everyone we approached agreed to be filmed. The only time our cameras were denied access was when Baba (who is a Yoruba priest) was doing a reading of Linda Mitchell, and he told us that the ancestors said to turn our cameras off.

Ann in Maryland asks: I just finished watching Flag Wars and it made me both angry and sad. I was especially angered by the judge's interrogating a clearly ill Linda. If it stirred such emotions for me as a viewer I can only imagine how it felt for you as filmmakers. Were you able to maintain an emotional distance during the filming of this project?

Goode Bryant: I don't think it's possible to maintain an emotional distance when making documentaries, especially when they are about people in crisis and facing seemingly insurmountable odds as Linda Mitchell was. When we began "Flag Wars," we made a commitment to ourselves and the residents of Olde Towne East that we would fairly represent what we observed during our time in their community. Thus, our challenge was not to maintain an emotional distance but to make sure our emotions did not get in the way of keeping that commitment.

Poitras: As a documentarian, you need to be very careful about not doing things that will alter the outcome of events. There are limits to this commitment, though. We did drive Linda Mitchell to the emergency room when she was ill on a few occasions.

Jen in Minnesota asks: Do you have a hard time walking away from a project once your film is complete? Do you ever follow up to satisfy your own curiosity about the outcome?

Goode Bryant: The relationships we developed during "Flag Wars" are forever. We will maintain contact and relationships with the people of Olde Towne East who were amazingly generous, courageous, and patient in allowing us to film them over four years.

Poitras: I look forward to knowing the people we filmed throughout my life. The reason is not out of curiosity, but a desire to maintain these relationships.

David in Tennessee asks: Were the gay flags flown year around or just during 'Gay Pride' month?

Poitras: Residents in the community fly rainbow flags year round from their homes. The rainbow flag only flew at the State House during the Gay Pride Parade in 1999.

Pam in Indiana asks: While the filmmakers depicted Miss Mitchell's physical problems, they seemed to ignore her psychiatric issues. Was this intentional? Or was it edited out (I write and am used to my editor deleting things I think should stay)? Did anyone advocate for her in terms of her mental health? My husband and I watched the documentary with interest since we live in a Queen Anne Victorian and have been restoring it over 20 years and the birth of five children. He is the CEO of a community mental health center and I teach psychology at the local colleges. We are both advocates for the mentally ill as well as the developmentally disabled.

Goode Bryant: Linda Mitchell had a network of elderly women in the neighborhood that helped her as they could to make sure she had her basic needs met (i.e. access to telephones, food, a warm place to stay during winter months, etc.) We perceived Linda as a bit eccentric but not mentally ill. She was able to get hospital care when she needed it and had access to hospital social workers. As indicated in the film, she was fiercely independent and was not receptive to the help social workers offered.

Poitras: During our four years of filming in Columbus, Linda did not seek or receive psychiatric care. Linda was a very powerful and willful individual who wanted to live her life on her own terms. These terms might be different than yours or mine, but they were the ones she chose. We never questioned her mental competency.

Steve in California asks: As a white middle income gay man (I am a school teacher), I found your film provocative and disturbing. Here's my question: are there no gay people of color in Columbus, Ohio? The equation of gay = white is as problematic as the other issues. That feeds a popular myth. We are not all rich. We are not all white. Thank you for your work.

Goode Bryant: There are African American gays and lesbians living in Olde Towne East that we met who are "closeted." After six months of approaching them about being in the film we were able to tape 8 gay black men in a conversation. We were unable to use this footage because it was not in the cinema verité style in which we chose to tell the story.

Poitras: In our descriptions of "Flag Wars" we were always very clear to indicate that we were following white gays (and lesbians) moving into Olde Towne. We used this description because that is what we witnessed and what we were interested in understanding. If you look at gay urban gentrification across the country, you see that it is largely white gays who are transforming and redefining these urban spaces. This is not to say that there are no gays and lesbians of color also living in these neighborhoods (or in Olde Towne), but when we looked at the organizations, individuals, and businesses that were driving the changes happening in Olde Towne, they were run, organized, and attended by whites (including some straight whites).

As for the myth that all white gay men are rich, we chose to follow Jim because he is struggling financially to renovate his house. We thought it was very important to include that in the film. We also think that being white and male, Jim had greater access to loan money than he would have if he were a person of color. In other words, we wanted to show how structural forms of inequality impacted the changes taking place in Olde Towne.

Ramon in Michigan asks: Your documentary was incredibly powerful and moving. I went through a range of emotions while watching the show and am still wrestling with a few things in deciding how I really feel about the entire situation. Even as I write, there are riots and rumors of more rioting going on not two miles from me in Benton Harbor, Michigan where this sort of wrangling has been going on for 20 years or more... My real question to you as filmmakers is where did you lay your heads at night, how can you not take sides after being immersed in the situation? Your documentary made me search myself and ask, "is there anyone whom I can help, is there anyone that I have been ignoring, is there anyone whom I have forgotten about?"

Goode Bryant: At the start of "Flag Wars" we made a commitment to ourselves and the residents of Olde Towne East that we would represent, as fairly as we possibly could, what we observed in the neighborhood while living and documenting there. Keeping that commitment helped us to not take sides. Human beings are complex. We're not simply one thing versus another thing. There are many facets to who we are and how we act and interact in the world. Getting to know people opened us to appreciating that complexity and not judging people.

Poitras: As a society I think we've become a little too good at taking sides, and that this is part of the problem. When we take sides we often tend to de-humanize people. Linda and I really wanted the viewer to identify with everyone in the film. We also wanted to reveal human contradictions -- the beautiful and the ugly. It was both a challenge and a privilege as a filmmaker to not take sides and be open to the people we followed. Our job was to listen and understand and recognize what is universal among all of us.

Adrianne in Missouri asks: As a resident of a recently restored historic area, I was curious as to the fate of its former occupants, although few, and that led me to your documentary, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which has already sparked heated debate. My question is this: Where were Columbus' nonprofit/service agencies/churches? Why weren't they taking a more active stance in helping the residents discover all available options, rather than simply wringing their hands in defeat? Thanks in advance.

Goode Bryant: Ultimately, nonprofits did provide some assistance to Linda. There were a number of reasons their help didn't come sooner. Linda's needs were so great that no one organization could help her on their own. It took Randy Black who works for the city in its Historic Resource Commission, to bring the groups together so they could collectively provide assistance that would begin to address some of Linda's code and zoning violations.

Benjamin in Illinois asks: Do you know if it's possible to purchase the beautiful music which scored the documentary?

Poitras: Graham Haynes composed and recorded the music for the film. It is currently not available for sale, but we have talked about making a CD. If you are interested, please email us at FlagWars@ZulaPearlFilms.com and we will contact you when/if it becomes available.

Stella in Ohio asks: It appears that the Canon XL1 [camera] was used. I thought the cinematography was great! Was there a special wide screen lens used? Also, how was the flat film look achieved in some shots and was there any special motivation as to when to use this look and when to use the straight video look? There was very nice color. Was there a filter on the lens or was this achieved in post?

Poitras: When we began filming, we hired director of photography Arthur Jafa (DP on Daughters of the Dust, Crooklyn, etc). AJ shot the first 11 days of filming and worked closely with Linda to create a visual palette and look for the film (we then did rest of the filming over the next four years). This including shooting at different shutter speeds and balancing the camera (Canon XL-1) to different colors rather than the typical white card. For instance, we wanted a really cool, bluish look in the courtroom footage, so we balanced the camera to a salmon colored card. This subtracted red from the image, creating a very anemic palette. All these decisions were made in the field while shooting, though we also did an extensive color correction during post (mostly to enhance the look we had already established). The only footage with a "straight video look" was by mistake.