Flag Wars

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

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you choose documentary in this case?

Linda Goode Bryant: My imagination and a desire to realize the ideas
it concocts, a child's curiosity, a richly conceived work of art, and those moments
when humans choose creation over destruction motivate me as a filmmaker.

I initially thought I would write a script for a narrative film about "flag wars" when I learned gays were moving into the neighborhood where I grew up. But my curiosity got the better of my imagination. I had far too many questions I wanted answered. And the people who were living the experience had the answers. It was clear the story had to be told by the community. As filmmakers, our job was to observe, withhold judgment, and represent fairly what we saw and heard.

Filmmakers standing on front stepsLaura Poitras: I make verité documentaries because they are able
to capture and reveal human struggles and dramas as they unfold in the moment.
I'm not interested in making documentaries to tell facts or to provide information
per se. The information and "issues" in "Flag Wars" (i.e.
race, economics, sexuality, prejudice, religion, capitalism, etc.) all emerge
out of the actions and interactions of the characters that we follow in the film.

My motivation in making documentaries is to gain understanding. Before we began filming "Flag Wars," Linda and I set out with a question — what would happen in a black working-class community when white gays and lesbians buy and renovate houses in the neighborhood? We answer this question by following residents from the community over the course of four years. The events that unfold in "Flag Wars" are unpredictable and take unexpected turns. These turns repeatedly challenged my expectations, prejudices, and beliefs. I hope "Flag Wars" will also challenge the viewers' expectations, prejudices, and beliefs.

POV: What generally inspires your interest?

Poitras: I am interested in stories and situations that reveal human tragedy and contradictions, small and large scale. Stories that juxtapose different worldviews and realities, that challenge viewers to think critically, and that pull no punches.

Goode Bryant: Human interactions involving power, aggression, deceit, apathy, willfulness, compassion, and loss capture my narrative interest. Stories that allow me to experiment with making work that resides at the point where fiction, documentary, and art intersect and are indistinguishable inspire my creative interest. Richly conceived visual images encourage me to avoid repetition.

POV: What inspired you to make Flag Wars?

Laura Poitras shooting Flag Wars
Poitras: When we began filming Flag Wars I was living with my lover in Harlem. I was aware that my presence in the neighborhood signaled a change. When Linda returned from a trip to visit her family in Columbus and told me about the rainbow flags hanging up in the neighborhood she grew up in, I was immediately interested.

What drew us to the story was not just the issue of neighborhood transition, or gentrification, but rather how these two groups — blacks and white gays — would live together. How would their shared experience of oppression in the larger society impact how they would co-exist in this neighborhood? Would the gentrification look different, and if so, how? In that sense, we saw it as a more universal story about group identity and conflict.

One of the things we reveal in Flag Wars is how privilege and prejudice operate simultaneously. As a lesbian, I am aware that I can be a target for violence and discrimination, however, I am also aware that my class and race privilege open doors for me every day of my life. My sexuality does not erase these privileges.

As a filmmaker, I think it is imperative for people with privilege to make work that also examines privilege. Who better to talk about racism than white people, classism than people with money, homophobia than straight people?

Goode Bryant: I was curious to see what and how the relationship between blacks and white gays would develop as each pursued their visions of home and community. Their shared histories of oppression seemed to provide an opportunity for two different groups to develop shared priorities, strategies, and goals their community. I wanted to document if that occurred and if not, I wanted to understand why.

I believe that villain and hero, victim and victimizer, good and bad are aspects of all of us. As filmmakers, we wanted to fully and fairly represent what we observed over four years. We also wanted to tell the story of Flag Wars in a way that made it difficult for viewers to stand in judgment of its characters or easily take sides with one group over the other. For both, we needed to reveal our characters fully, even when their values were contrary to their beliefs and their actions were in conflict with their goals. In doing so, we hope Flag Wars provides insight into the difficulties that arise when different groups live together.

POV: What were your goals in making Flag Wars? And what would you like to see happen with it?

Goode Bryant: Artistically, I wanted to make a documentary film that
would unfold like a narrative (fiction) feature film. The story would have to
unfold through the action and interactions of its "characters." Cinema
verité was the obvious documentary style because its "fly-on-the-wall"
perspective of events relies on documenting events as they are happening. I did
not want to use any of the devices commonly associated with documentary filmmaking
such as interviews, voice-over narration, lower-third text that identifies who
is speaking, or title cards that provide information to move the story forward.
This made things a bit more difficult. We had to find other ways to convey information
that were not solely expositional. Being able to film television reports about
the neighborhood helped tremendously in that area.

I would like a broad and diverse audience to view Flag Wars, including those who "turnoff" to documentaries. I hope people will be drawn and engaged in the film because it is dramatic and compelling. Hopefully, their relationship to Flag Wars will not be mediated by its genre but affected by its story and the impact it has on them.

Poitras: We had both artistic and political goals in making Flag Wars.

Artistically, Linda's vision was to have the story to unfold as a narrative drama told through the actions and interactions of our characters. Before shooting we worked with cinematographer and artist Arthur Jafa to establish a visual template for the style of the film. While shooting, I attempted to document the action in a way that helped drive and tell the story visually.

Though artistic, this approach is also political. The narrative use of the documentary material draws viewers in, making the separation between "us" and "them" more difficult. We wanted viewers to identify with all the characters and their struggles, and thus feel emotionally invested and implicated in the events that unfold. I hope that the viewer feels moved to consider, if not change, some of their actions or beliefs after seeing Flag Wars.

The narrative approach we've used also has the potential to reach a broad audience. I especially want "Flag Wars" to be seen by queer audiences and to raise debate around class and race in the queer community. I also hope Flag Wars will reach people who are living in communities that are undergoing similar types of transitions.

POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making Flag Wars?

Poitras: I was surprised and moved by the openness, honesty, and courage of the people who participated in the documentary. It was an honor to be allowed into people's lives on that level.

Goode Bryant: The idea that each of us is complex — made up of different beliefs, values, and experiences that are complimentary and conflicting at the same time — was made clear to me during our four years in Columbus. The experience of making Flag Wars dispelled the whole notion of "stereotype" and any other type of description that narrowly defines a group or individual. I learned I can appreciate and have affection for people whether or not I agree with their position or actions on a particular issue, because that issue and the positions and actions they take are but one aspect of who they are.

POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Poitras: I am currently finishing a more abstract piece, "Oh say can you see...," that looks at the relationship between spectacle, mourning, and nationalism in the aftermath of 9/11.

Goode Bryant: Immediately after completing Flag Wars, I began research on my next project, "The Vote." This is conceived as a feature-length, cinema verité story that begins in September, 2003 in a hotly contested low voter turnout county in Georgia or Florida as voter organizers prepare their strategies to "get out the vote" during the 2004 Presidential Primaries and Election. "The Vote" will reveal the American electoral process from the POV (point of view) of the American voter in an effort to reveal and understand why Americans, in increasing numbers, don't vote.

Check out what Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras had to say in response to questions that viewers sent in. »