Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Where's the Table?! Over There in Richmond!

I thought it was a joke from the Onion Newspaper when a colleague sent me a news clip saying civil rights leader Al Sharpton's forebearers were slaves owned by Strom Thurmond's family, a longtime segregationist. Apparently it's true.

It seems, however, that the Sharptons and the Thurmonds won't be taking any lessons of transcendance from Betty Kilby Fisher and Phoebe Kilby along the lines of sitting down together at the table, as Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed.


Mr. Sharpton said he had not heard from the Thurmonds and had no immediate plans of contacting them. “This is not family,” he said firmly. “This is property.”

Amazingly, some transcendance on race issues is coming out of Richmond, Virginia - former capitol of the Confederacy. The Virginia state legislature issued an apology over the weekend for the state's past history of slavery. The Old Dominion becomes the first southern state to formally acknowledge its role through legislative channels. The measure also expressed regret for the state's treatment of Native Americans.

The resolution was introduced as Virginia begins its celebration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, where the first Africans arrived in 1619. Richmond, home to a popular boulevard lined with statues of Confederate heroes, later became another point of arrival for Africans and a slave-trade hub.
In Virginia, black voter turnout was suppressed with a poll tax and literacy tests before those practices were struck down by federal courts, and state leaders responded to federally ordered school desegregation with a "Massive Resistance" movement in the 1950s and early '60s. Some communities created exclusive whites-only schools.

Among those voting for the measure was Delegate Frank D. Hargrove, an 80-year-old Republican who infuriated black leaders last month by saying "black citizens should get over" slavery.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Audience Feedback From WWW Screening

Here are comments from those who attended the Wit, Will and Walls screenings from 2/17 and 2/18. These link to the posting about the screenings below. I will add to these as more come in - so please feel free to send me your comments:

Jill Finsen, Artist and Non Profit Policy Staff - It was remarkable that Wit, Will and Walls brought together relatives of a former slave and slave owner—a significant meeting as told by both of these women. Wit, Will and Walls allows us to better appreciate what was a remarkably courageous and threatening experience for those who led the way. Thanks to those who participated 50 years ago and to those who continue to keep the story alive to improve relations for today and the future.

David Sheon, President PR Firm - After hearing those stories, I appreciate more how deep the emotional scars, the systematic disenfranchisement, and the cultural deprivation caused by white society's raping of black society must still hurt.

Consider that Kilby's great grandmother - if I've guessed the generations correctly - could well have been a slave attacked/raped by the slave owner. Somehow I doubt it was love behind that! So the wheels were put in motion from that point on to create a person who would not be "at home" anywhere.

Then the well documented systematic and "legal" closure of the high school, the brutal attack, and the social alienation of Kilby by her peers, educators, and courts brings the ignorance/hate/intolerance to another generation. The story of being constantly attacked by spitballs, and then being sent to detention because she had the nerve to complain about it - is such good imagery, and so painful for us all to hear.

Reconciliation is a much higher hurdle than I ever realized, but we're fortunate to be living at a time when courageous people are beginning to poke their heads out from dark closets. The heroes of our day come in all colors, ages, shapes and sizes.

Kris Larsen, TV Director, Producer -When Betty Kilby Fisher told her story of reconciliation and introduced her "cousin" Ms. Phoebe Kilby, she pointed out that "we are living Dr. Matin Luther King's dream" -- I doubt there was a dry eye in the place! Also, involving young filmmakers to tell Tanesia's story is a brilliant move - the stories, and the whole evening, unfolded beautifully. Epic!

Dr. Ann Denkler, SU Historian - The best part of the events was the venue of the church. The film, the church, and the community just fit together perfectly. I also think that your film brings out the need to know history, to reconcile racially, and, most importantly, to celebrate these two things. It's as if one shouldn't simply try to understand racism and the horrors of segregation without looking at how the African American community wants to see it dealt with. And, clearly, it should be looked at as a celebration of healing.

Bob Burke, SU Director of Corporate Relations - For me the story is not historical but a part of who I am. I remember segregation in Southern Missouri and how stupid I though it was and how disturbing it was for me that white adults in my church could support the idea including my parents. One of the reasons I gave up going to church. The only time my father and I had a physical altercation was over segregation. It was a pretty good fight, I was 16.

M. Tyson Gilpin, Attorney - I attended the screenings of “Wit Will and Walls” at two different places. First, at the home of Tracy Fitzsimmons in Reliance, VA and second, at Mt. Carmel Church in Winchester, VA. Despite the fact that the audiences were from completely different backgrounds the reactions were the same. The audiences were powerfully moved by the coming together and triumph of Betty Kilby Fisher and her granddaughter to tell the story. In addition, both the white Kilbys and the African American Kilbys were in both audiences. The spontaneous bonding within the greater Kilby “family” at both events was inspiring.

Dr. Warren Hofstra, SU Historian -What hit me the hardest about Betty’s story and your work together is how much it lives today. Betty’s story begins 50 years ago, but what you and Betty have to say about race and reconciliation for the present is very powerful. That power was very evident in Sunday’s premiere.

Patsy Moore, Secretary, My Mom - I was very impressed with the words from Dr. Deborah Lee, the public historian, as she stressed that movements survive and much is accomplished when they are faith and spirit motivated. We linked arms and concluded with "WE SHALL OVERCOME". I know this film will evolve into a full hour-long documentary. Motives are correct and God will bless.

Sheila Smith, Director of Photography -The thing that struck me most was the courageous reunion between the grandaughter of the slave owner and Betty. Only when meetings like this happen can reconciliation and healing begin. And I was touched my the anguish of Betty's father, having to sacrifice his daughter's safety and innocence to send her into the school to "earn" the education which he was deprived.

Also, I was encouraged my the documentary made by the younger generation. It seems they really understood the hardship Betty's generation had to endure so that their descendant's could have a better life and with that realization comes the responsibility of both races of today's generation to continue the work needed for our society to move towards racial equality.

Dr. James Bryant II, SU Historian - Betty Kilby Fisher's story is a testament of how faith and perserverance can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She gives us lessons for life.

Claiborne Lashley, Lighting Director - I have been in the film industry since 1983; worked on 30+ feature films. John Sayles, Clint Eastwood, Jodie Foster, Ivan Rittman… Whoop Goldberg, Julia Roberts, James Earl Jones, Tom Cruise…many others.

That’s Hollywood; I prefer Betty and Paulette.

Through their vision and interpretation we come face to face with an issue that is haunting yet we see that a nightmare can become a dream. To be identified with a project like Wit, Will and Walls means to give something to our culture that is poignant and educational.

Betty’s story needs to be shouted from the mountaintop.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Wit, Will and Walls - the Shenandoah Valley Screenings

It has been an amazing month of gearing up for and screening Wit, Will and Walls; the Betty Kilby Fisher Story in 2 public venues. We were scheduled for three, but a wintery blast of glacial ice across the Shenandoah Valley last week conspired to keep us out of Warren County High School, the historic location where Betty Kilby Fisher was the infant plaintiff to desegregate the county's schools. Look for that screening, with some special guests, to be rescheduled in March or later this spring.

The lead-up to the weekend was the round of press in Winchester and Front Royal with Betty and me. The most intriguing interview was with Dan McDermott of The Valley Today radio show. It was on this show that Betty revealed that she had kept the fact that she had been raped in Warren Couny High School auditorium a secret from her mother until last Wednesday. Her mother's response after 50 years? She simply said quietly "So it's true."

This has been a terrifying experience for Betty to work through, but telling the truth of it when she has been ready has been cathartic for her and healing for others. Dan was a sensitive and insightful interviewer - lots of trust there for Betty to share her story. A link to the interview:

And a link to the companion story in Dan's independent newspaper The Warren County Report (Dan is the hardest working man in media today) http://warrencountyreport.com/kilby.pdf

On Saturday night 2/17 we screened at Old Reliance Theater, in Reliance, VA. Shenandoah University Vice President Tracy Fitzsimmons and her husband Dr. Chuck Call live upstairs in this refurbished schoolhouse - and their basement is a theater where ambitious social issue theater productions like The Laramie Project and The Vagina Monologues have been staged with great success. A few hightlights:

I was proud to screen the SU student piece about Betty's granddaughter, Tanesia. Tanesia portrayed her grandmother in my film. Sibling teams Nick and Kevin Matheson and Hallie and Cody Penwell worked VERY hard to profile Tanesia and her take on her family's legacy with touching results.
During discussion after the screenings, a woman named Phoebe Kilby from Harrisonburg, VA announced that she's done preliminary research and believes that her family was the Kilby slaveholder and Betty's family were the slaves! She felt that by contacting Betty that they together would be able to live out Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of the daughters of the slaves and slaveholders sitting down together at the table. Betty's family has already taken to calling her "cousin Phoebe"!
Not at all ironically, but sort of startlingly Phoebe Kilby works with Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg. EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding hosts a project called Coming to the Table, which gathers and documents the stories of the descendents of slaves and slaveholders.

An NPR story about the Coming to... project:

On Sunday 2/18 we screened at the wonderful Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Winchester, VA. What an afternoon of discussion and truths. When the discussion was over, all in the church linked arms and sang "We Shall Overcome". Thank you Pastor Gilbert Mack, Linda Jackson and the congregation from Mt. Carmel for welcoming us to your beautiful venue. I look forward to more collaboration... and singing!

Friday, February 02, 2007

More Illuminating Content From AU's Documentary Seminar

Repurpose. Recyle, Reinvent. These are the key points I took away from the 2nd day of American University's Making Documentaries Matter Seminar. Gone are the days when the documentary filmmaker toiled behind the production curtain for months or even years before rolling out the BIG PICTURE for one stunning night of broadcast, and then retreated back into the nether worlds of research and pre-production to begin the cycle all over again.

Today's production landscape is a rolling line of output and smaller milestones that reaches to community and partners for feedback all along the way to present in multiple platform and venues; community screenings, festivals, broadcast, cable, deep cable, deeper cable, websites, file sharing sites cellphones, house parties.

For me it's not news, just validation of the process that has already begun in my work which is tremendously helpful. The panels were too comprehensive and varied to do justice to them in my tiny blog, but below are a few random thoughts. The Center for Social Media does a tremendous job of documenting the whole event on DVD and on their website. Anyone who is remotely interested in the state of non-fiction filmmaking needs to put this seminar on the top of their to do lists.
-More gasps from the audience than the cell phone that you can shoot and edit on:
Jean Seoh of Arts Engine - an advocacy group on the participatory media panel showed a heart-stopping short film about the devastating effects of racism with the film A Girl Like Me which shows an experiment where black children are asked to chose between white and black dolls. You can find that on YouTube and the Media that Matters website.
-I couldn't imagine this job existed!:
Katerina Ciznek, Filmmaker-in-Residence, St. Michaels Hospital in Toronto. Katerina was on a panel about participatory media but I became obsessed with the concept of her job. Soooo - this woman was appointed by the Canadian government to go and hang out in Canada's premiere hospital to create projects like an art photo blog about pregnant teens and flash films about a day in the life of a health care worker so that the hospital could effectively advocate for issues that need attention. I am still trying to get my brain around this one but I think it is fantastic.
-New Media Word of the Day: What is a bit torrent?
I don't know, but my sense is we all better figure it out. It has something to do with a technology that allows users downloading the same video clip to share the "load" (my word) of the information so that the more people who view the clip, the better the quality of the clip. I could also be completely wrong. I looked it up on Wikipedia, but it is written in some kind of Vulcan dialect that I can't follow.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Gasps from Documentary Audience At American University

At American University this week for their always-excellent "Making Your Documentary Matter" seminar sponsored by the Center for Social Media. This group addresses the current and varied issues for independent filmmakers focused on using media for social change.

Among the stunning array of speakers from the first symposium - Benjamin Walker of PBS's We Shall Remain - a massive American Experience project to document Native American history which will take up nearly half the broadcast season in 2009 -

Walker comes from the new media initiatives for this project and the audience gasped and applauded when he revealed that he will help arm thousands of native americans in Arizona with an unbelievable new Nokia phone which will have video capture and EDITING capability built-in. They will gather video over the course of one year and document their American Experience on a PBS website. Wow.

The phone is N93 which costs around $700 with Carl Zeiss optics and memory cards with built in instructional videos on how to shoot quality video.

All of the speakers speak of cell phones as the 4th screen - the follow-on to theater, television and compter screens.

More to follow as the conference progresses!