Filmmaker Marco Williams Revisits Two Towns of Jasper
Veteran ITVS filmmaker Marco Williams has a history of creating films that examine race relations between white and black Americans. Williams provided BTB with some background to his and Whitney Dow’s documentary Two Towns of Jasper, streams here free September 17 – 19.
On September 21, 2011 Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the three white men convicted for the racially motivated murder of James Byrd Junior, a black man, in Jasper Texas, will be executed. The chaining and dragging of James Byrd behind a pick-up truck formed the basis of Two Towns of Jasper, the film that Whitney Dow and I made.
In making the film, there was an opportunity to comment on race in America during the last half of the last decade of the twentieth century. In using segregated film crews to film Jasper’s residents over the course of the three trials, there was the space for each black and white resident’s to speak openly about their views on race and race relations.
It has always been important to me to give voice to the crime and pain of racism in America. As a black man, I felt it was a birth right burden and responsibility to make comment, to highlight, to call attention to racial injustice. I have created films that examine race relations between white and black Americans.
Two Towns of Jasper represents a most extreme attempt to highlight the chasm between the races. I wanted to make this chasm vivid because through acknowledgement of the divide there was the best chance to bridge it. Overcoming the gulf could only occur if we appreciated our racial differences rather than trying not to see the other’s race or our racial differences. Oh how I hate the refrain: “I don’t see race (color)”.
What has changed in America, with regard to race, since we made Two Towns of Jasper thirteen years ago? Well, President Obama became the first black man elected president of the United States. Some say this signifies that race is no longer an issue. A memorial was erected on the Washington Mall to honor the Reverend, Martin Luther King Junior.
But things are not so rosy in Jasper. The city has had a tumultuous summer. It seems that racial tension has bubbled to the surface, yet again, but this time it is not due to a racially motivated crime but division within the political leadership of the city. Am I surprised?
While I am not one to join the chorus that we now live in a post-racial America, I do wonder what it means that race is so little spoken about these days. Will this silence or omission about race change as the 2012 presidential election cycle begins in earnest and someone offers the words: Black Incumbent President?
When you watch Two Towns of Jasper, I hope that you look at it not simply as a chapter in our nation’s history, but that you look at it as a mirror, as a prism that gives you pause to look at yourself in the racial prism of America and that you look at it and look around yourself, your family, your community, your nation and ask what has changed, what remains the same, and what still needs fixing?
Filmmaker Whitney Dow Revisits Two Town of Jasper
The documentary, Two Towns of Jasper, by filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow, streams here free September 17 – 19.
It has been more then ten years since Marco and I finished filming Two Towns of Jasper, and much has changed on the white side of the small Texas town where James Byrd Jr. was so brutally murdered.
Sheriff Billy Rowles and District Attorney Guy James Gray have retired. White Supremacist Trent Smith has become a successful businessman, and rabble-rousing radio reporter Mike Lout is now mayor. The town has tried hard to forget the events that made Japer a household name and move on. But some things have not changed.
A current dispute over the restructuring of the Jasper Police Department by the new chief (who happens to be black) has rapidly hardened along racial lines and has the community in an uproar.
America has changed too. The most obvious change is, of course, we have a black president, or a half-black president . . . or is it a half white president? And while lip service is paid to the idea of a post-racial America, it is something that no honest person really believes is true, or even possible.
The concept of a country made up of immigrants insures that dynamic racial tension will always be a fact of American life. The reflexive racism and bigotry directed toward Muslims and people of Middle Eastern decent that began immediately following 9/11 was disappointing, but not surprising in the context of a country that has in its past slavery, the Trail of Tears, Japanese American interment, and Jim crow.
America’s very premise is self-invention, and a people who believe that their national identity lies in the future — that what their country will be is far more important than what it once was — will naturally move forward in fits and starts. It is what makes this country such an interesting experiment to be part of.
Over the past ten years I also have changed. These days I find myself less focused on the importance of cross-race dialog, and more convinced that my responsibility in the fight is to understand my own white racial identity and how it impacts my life and others.
My impetus for making the film with Marco was to try to create a functional dialog on race in a place where none existed, and to perhaps find a way to bridge a gap between two friends who shared much common history yet were ultimately separated by the deep chasm of race. I no longer see racial difference as something that needs to be bridged, but rather something that should to be celebrated and embraced.
As I look back on Two Towns of Jasper, I remember the profound impact making the film had on me, and being convinced that by completing the film I had completed some sort of profound identity transformation. I had no idea that I was just beginning the process.
ITVS Serves up Anatomy of a Springroll
The documentary, Anatomy of a Springroll, by filmmakers Paul Kwan and Arnold Iger streamed here for free September 14 – 16.
Anatomy of a Springroll is an award-winning documentary that follows one man’s journey to reconcile his Vietnamese roots with his current American life. In 1973, Paul Kwan’s father bribed a customs official to allow the youngest of his 24 children to flee the political chaos that was Saigon. Living in San Francisco 20 years later, Kwan looks to the language of food to best reconcile his past.
BTB spoke with filmmakers Paul Kwan and Arnold Iger about the film, earlier this week…
On the documentary…
Paul: We were doing experimental theatre in the Bay Area at the time we saw ITVS’s Open Call announcement. So we decided to switch our career paths to do a PBS documentary!
Arnold: We felt that Paul had a good story — a story about family. And the idea came from using the idea of the family recipe of the spring roll. From observing Paul and his family, I could see that the spring roll was an occasion for celebration and that cooking really brought the family together. If we made that the MacGuffin of the film, it would be a way to tell the story.
So we pursued that as a visual theme and the spring roll became not just a thing but a way of cultural knowledge and family — really the crux of the film.
On the filming process…
Arnold: When we were making the film we would also do stage presentations. It was a way of working on ideas and it was like a rehearsal for the film and we would create a stage performance and continue with the film.
It was the way that we were used to working. When we were doing a lot of the stage work we were using a lot of multimedia (puppetry, slide projection) and we continued working that way throughout the film.
A Family Story…
Paul: In terms of the filming it was very emotional for me because my father died shortly before the trip to Vietnam. So going back was a way of saying goodbye to my father. He couldn’t leave Saigon after the war. My mother left by boat but my father couldn’t leave. So that was very emotional and it meant a lot for me.
Arnold: Paul’s family was really very giving and they became a part of the process. Over the years they were always a part of the process. They just became part of the ebb and flow of the family dynamic so it was very interesting.
I think that Paul’s family story has a lot of universal touchstones. The struggle of his family to establish themselves in a new country and remain connected. And the way we saw that was through the spring roll. It might sound facetious, but it really was the emotional attachment around food that made family members connect. And through that love of food, a love each other.
Where are they now…
Paul: Now my mother is 93 and living in Oakland. She still brings me food every two weeks!
Indies Showcase Online Chats
This month marks the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 and in recognition, ITVS is revisiting several films that touched on the subject, including The Oath by Laura Poitras, which streamed here free September 11 – 13. A live chat moderated by PBS NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan on that film took place September 12 with Poitras and others.
View the chat
Filmmaker Micha Peled's acclaimed documentary China Blue streamed here for free August 12 – 14. PBS NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan moderated a live chat on August 12 with Peled and others, focusing the discussion on globalization and other important issues raised in the film.
View the chat