On November 18 at the Missouri Theatre, True/False and the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism (a new addition to the University of Missouri’s Journalism School) are co-presenting a special screening of the documentary Killing Them Safely. Directed by Mizzou Journalism School graduate and Columbia resident Nick Berardini, Killing Them Safely is a gripping, nuanced look at a company, TASER International, as it confronts charges that its eponymous product, an electroshock weapon, has killed people.
For Berardini, the film is the result of an all-consuming six-year journey. In August 2008, a police officer fired a taser at Stanley Harlan, a 23-year-old Moberly resident, who lost consciousness and was pronounced dead two hours later. Then an MU broadcast journalism student working at KOMU (underneath current Murray Center director Stacey Woelfel), Berardini reported on the incident. Shortly thereafter, he started production on the documentary, which took him all across the continent. Berardini learned extensive details about similar cases, acquired many hours of archival material (including deposition footage of TASER co-founders Rick and Tom Smith) and, crucially, secured an interview with TASER International Vice President Steve Tuttle, a peculiar and fascinating spokesman whose performance serves as the film’s backbone. Berardini then edited his engrossing, disturbing, sometimes darkly amusing film alongside True/False alumni Robert Greene (Actress, Fake It So Real), who is now also a Columbia resident, serving as “Filmmaker In Chief” at the Murray Center.
Killing Them Safely premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2015 under a different title, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. It received glowing reviews and was then picked up by distributor Sundance Selects, who will release the movie later this year. In early November, T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann met Berardini at Uprise Bakery to discuss his filmmaking journey.
To order tickets to the November 18 screening, visit this page
T/F: I studied in the strategic communications sequence of the journalism school, and you studied in the broadcast journalism sequence. In strat comm, they teach you how to handle interviews with journalists. You need to have three points, and you’re supposed to find sly ways to make them over and over. You know, “That’s an interesting question, Bob, but what I think we really need to be focused on is….” Meanwhile, I assume the broadcast sequence is teaching you how to break the public relations representatives, to get past those three points. I’m curious how you approached this big interview with Steve Tuttle, TASER’s spokesperson. Was he using the same technique I just described?
NB: Yes, he’s definitely in that mold of ‘here are the things we can say that are most effective.’ This is a life-saving tool that prevents the use of deadly force. That’s their very simple mission statement: “Protect truth, protect lives.” He says four or five of the same exact things over and over again. What works about rhetoric in his case is that most of the times when he has to say those four or five things, he says them in a very simple context. It’s a 12-second soundbite for the news. It’s a statement that’s issued to a newspaper. He doesn’t have to sit one-on-one with a person like me.
I didn’t go in with the goal of attack. I didn’t go in looking for “gotcha” moments. Going in, I think my biggest strength was genuine curiosity. If I tell you I want to understand your point of view, I’m going to sit there and try to understand your point of view. So I take everything at face value, and it works for twenty minutes. Over the course of a day, it becomes exhausting. Over the course of four hours, if you can only say the same things over and over and can’t really elaborate, then what are you left with?
T/F: Aside from length, how does your interviewing approach differ from broadcast journalism?
NB: If I were to do a TV news story about TASER International, I would want to go in with all the research done so that if Steve Tuttle says “A,” then I could counter with, “But that’s not true based on this thing.” But I’m making a film that is less about what and more about why. I’m more interested in motivation and process than I am in information.
T/F: I think the trailer is very clever, but I was surprised to see how it sort of throws Steve under the bus in its final seconds.
NB: These guys are true believers.They believe in this way of policing. And when you have a true believer, you have to treat them with the respect of a person going through their own thought process. Steve is a guy who lies for a living, but what is the reason behind the lie? Why does he feel compelled to lie? Because they clearly know at this point that their weapon kills people. It’s a question of what’s the biggest threat. Do we deserve to exist? Is the world a better place because we exist? Steve is not an evil person. He’s a complicated person dealing with complicated subject matter that he simplifies in his mind to protect the simplest goal, which is that we must survive because the world is better with us than without us.
T/F: You use a lot of deposition footage where John Burton, a lawyer featured prominently throughout the film, questions TASER co-founders Rick and Tom Smith. How does his approach to interviewing differ from your own?
NB: The movie is about this company—its history, its rise, its controversy and where it is today—and for the movie to work, they need a good adversary. The lawyers are great adversaries. They’re the only thing that truly threatens the company. When you listen to their interviewing style, you realize they’re there because they want to win. They do amazing work, but they wouldn’t sit there if it was a bad case. They’re taking cases they’re pretty confident they’re going to win. When they’re questioning, they’re trying to prove a very technical or specific point in legalese in order to win a case six months down the road in trial. To prove negligence. I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m trying to enlighten myself and the audience to a way of thinking, to a point of view that they’re not familiar with, that’s different from their own. The styles are different because the intentions are different.
T/F: When you were studying the lives of Rick and Tom Smith, did you find a way to relate to them on a personal level?
NB: Yes, there’s definitely a tunnel vision aspect to both of us. In many ways, this movie is a commentary about all of us. It’s about the way we see ourselves—the best version of ourselves—versus what we really are. And I constantly experienced that disconnect with my film. For years, I told myself this movie is going to be amazing for all these reasons. And you think that way because the sheer panic that sets in when you realize it’s not going as planned could put you on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Especially when you’ve put, like I have and like they did, your life into something. In order to deal with the collateral damage they created, TASER International started telling little lies that became much bigger over time. Once the consequences were no longer hypothetical, there were two ways out: own up to it, face it and admit that you made a mistake, or cling to the best version of yourself, that idea that you had when you started.
T/F: You started this film as a reaction to a very upsetting local news story. There’s been a lot of reporting on TASER International in the years since.
NB: The film is still timely and relevant. It’s not because policing issues are at the forefront of the news. This is a story that’s as old as human beings. It’s about the promise of technology, the promise of innovation, the desire to want things to succeed before we’ve fully through the consequences of those things because they’re new and the consequences are hypothetical. This is the ultimate absurd example because it’s an electric weapon. It has the most clear hypothetical ‘what can go wrong’ questions attached to it.
The film is also about what you do when you’re at this crossroads and your livelihood and your way of thinking is on the line. And why do we constantly take things at face value from the people who have the most to lose? That’s what most blows my mind. I don’t want to say everyone believed them, but the law enforcement community jumped on board with the company right away. And the company was the only one providing information about their product. Obviously they had the most to the lose yet were somehow the most trustworthy. I just don’t get it.
T/F: Killing Them Safely explores different problems, but it doesn’t offer any solutions.
NB: The traditional way of making an issue film, and what distributors typically want, is to offer the simplest presentation of that issue so people can then get active, sign a petition and feel good about themselves. There are films that should use this approach. But the problem with making a movie like that is that movies should be three-dimensional. They should be more than just bullet points. And what makes that impossible with Killing Them Safely is that it’s partly past tense. It’s retrospective. It’s about something that has already happened and the consequences of what’s already happened. There’s no way to rally the troops and take 500,000 tasers off the streets in the United States. That’s not possible. The movie is not going to make the same mistake by offering a simple solution when there isn’t one.
T/F: But do you want the film to have any sort of social impact?
NB: I certainly do broadly. I’m no anti-capitalist, but we’ve taken capitalism to this extreme now where we’re surprised when the actor with the most to lose acts in self-interest. And it’s not just the general public being surprised, it’s the fact that our regulatory system for something like tasers is basically the product liability system. Which inherently means someone is going to die before anyone does anything about this thing. This is an electrical weapon, it’s not a Lego. This is a weapon used in violent situations and yet it’s regulated the same way a toaster is. That goes back to an attitude of victim-blaming that we have and a distrust of the tort system that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. While there’s excessive litigation between individuals, corporations have insane protection from lawsuits. People have no idea how difficult it is to bring a product liability case and be successful. And it has to be that way because the system has to inspire ingenuity. Because most people aren’t making weapons, most people are making other products.
I don’t think there’s some sort of broad overhaul that needs to happen; taser is a very niche product. But I also think the film is a condemnation of the way we place trust in those acting in self-interest when they’re operating under the guise of business, job-provider, life-saver. We just fall for rhetoric way too easily. So it’s more about a general skepticism about people whose job it is to be skeptical— police administrators, politicians, city council members when they buy these weapons — than it is about writing a law that could prevent this sort of thing.
True/False caught up with Sarah Gavron, Director of SUFFRAGETTE, which opens today in select US theaters, to talk about connections between her documentary work and her current endeavor.
T/F:Both SUFFRAGETTE and VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD (T/F 2013) are based on real stories. Could you talk about the process of making films that are based in reality, when one turns out to be narrative and the other a documentary?
SG: There’s a lot of overlap, certainly, in the research phase. With Suffragette, we spent six years working on the script and most of that was research. You know documentaries about historical subjects are spent researching, but I wanted to embed Suffragette in the details of the time and make it feel as authentic as possible.
I wanted to break from the fictional period drama which keeps its distance and, instead, really immerse you in that period. So, I used quite a lot of documentary techniques: a handheld camera, a lot of time, giving actors a lot of freedom to capture the performance, rather than controlling and staging it for the camera.
As you well know in documentary, that’s what you’re doing a lot of the time, unless you’re reconstructing sections. You’re capturing it. And so that kind of fluidity and freedom means keeping an eye open and pushing the camera to follow whatever’s interesting and emerging or unfolding in front of you. We tried to give it that very real aesthetic so that you felt immersed in that world. It felt believable.
Did you find yourself varying from the script much as you worked?
Well, there were two processes. We rehearsed for quite a long time, and that was really about meticulously pouring over the script and fine tuning with the actors to make it feel right and as bespoke as possible.
Then, when we were on the set, there was a little bit of interpretive dialogue, but mostly interpretative staging and feel. We sort of improvised– we didn’t improvise in terms of the shape of the scene or the dialogue, but the actors came up with a lot.
There are so many ways of making a film, but if you look at something like The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Wes Anderson film, it’s storyboarded down to the last frame before you begin. The film itself is very much like the storyboard. Suffragette was far from that, at the other end of the spectrum. In it, there was a script and we were following that shape, but in terms of the actual moving, framing, and staging of each scene, it was organic. It evolved out of the process of being there on the set, interacting, and finding it in the moment.
Did you find that filming Suffragette in that way was easier for you?
I think it’s the way I naturally work. I think it felt right and exciting to this piece. You can make a film in a highly fictional, heightened way where you watch it, but you admire it. But we really wanted you to just connect with it, with these working women, to make this piece of history relevant and visceral and resonant today.
That aesthetic translated to every department. They weren’t wearing the usual film make-up, and for the clothing we used a lot of original stock, so actors were wearing clothing from the time, rather than having made lots of pieces.
I think what documentaries have taught me is to be alive to the moment. You have to be watching and absorbing and reassessing. You have to be adapting to what’s unfolding in front of you.
Often with a narrative film you have an enormous crew, and it’s much more flexible, and more planning has to go into every moment because of the scale of it. A documentary, then, is very freeing in that respect: you can go with the flow. I tried to bring that into the filmmaking process as much as possible.
Did you always intend to shoot it like a documentary, or did you have a moment when you realized that it needed to be done that way?
It was always the intent, from very early on. We looked for as many real locations as possible, because if you’re going to shoot in that way, you want as much of the 360 environment, rather than films where there’s a set in the corner and that’s it. It’s got limits.
For instance, I wanted us to shoot in the Parliament. We asked for access, and they said no one ever has; they told us we’d have to build a set or find some corner in another building. But we petitioned them, suffragette style, and we did get access. And then we went in there, with 340 artists, stunt people, horses, period vehicles, and we staged a protest in the very place that barred women for centuries.
When we were shooting that, we had four cameras, so we were really letting the action run. We had rehearsed it to make sure no one was going to get hurt, but we let the action run and then captured it.
Suffragette will be opening at Ragtag in early December.
On November 18, True/False and the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri are thrilled to co-present a special screening of the new documentary KILLING THEM SAFELY at the Missouri Theatre. Directed by local filmmaker Nick Berardini, KILLING THEM SAFELY is a gripping, nuanced study of Taser International as they confront charges that their eponymous product, which was sold to police forces as a non-lethal defense alternative, has killed civilians. KILLING THEM SAFELY premiered to great acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year (under its former title, TOM SWIFT AND HIS ELECTRIC RIFLE) and was picked up by distributor Sundance Selects, who will release the film in theaters nationwide. Berardini will participate in a post-screening Q&A at the November 18 screening, which starts at 7:30pm (doors open at 7pm). Tickets cost $10 and will be available at www.truefalse.org starting October 1.
In recent years, mid-Missouri’s growing film community has produced several outstanding works of nonfiction cinema, including Andrew Droz Palermo & Tracy Droz Tragos’ Sundance-winning RICH HILL and Chad Freidrichs’ THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH. KILLING THEM SAFELY, directed by University of Missouri Journalism School graduate Berardini, co-edited and co-photographed by former Columbia resident Nathan Truesdell and produced by Columbia residents Brock Williams (Boxcar Films) and Jamie Gonçalves, is the latest example. Following its Tribeca premiere, the film screened at North America’s largest documentary festival, Hot Docs. Then, this summer, both Berardini and Gonçalves (a True/False core staff member) were named to Filmmaker Magazine’s esteemed 25 New Faces of Independent Film list.
For Berardini, the film is the result of a winding, all-consuming six-year journey. In August 2008, a police officer fired a taser at Stanley Harlan, a 23-year-old Moberly resident, who lost consciousness and was pronounced dead two hours later. Then an MU broadcast journalism student working at KOMU (underneath current Murray Center director Stacey Woelfel), Berardini reported on the incident. Shortly thereafter, he started production on the documentary, which took him all across the continent. Berardini learned extensive details about similar cases, acquired many hours of archival material and, crucially, secured an interview with Taser International Vice President Steve Tuttle, a peculiar and fascinating spokesman whose performance serves as the film’s backbone. Berardini then edited his engrossing, disturbing, sometimes darkly amusing film alongside True/False alumni Robert Greene (ACTRESS, FAKE IT SO REAL), who is now Filmmaker In Chief at the Murray Center.
We are thrilled to announce the hiring of Pamela Cohn as our newest programmer! Cohn will work alongside David Wilson, Paul Sturtz, and Chris Boeckmann, to curate the film lineup.
Originally from Los Angeles, Cohn moved to Berlin, Germany in 2010 and soon after became an associate programmer for DokuFest, a documentary and shorts festival that takes place in Prizren, Kosovo annually each August. Cohn also runs an experimental video series called Kino Satellite, which takes place in Berlin.
In addition to her programming experience, Cohn also brings many years of experience as a film writer. She has regularly contributed to FILMMAKER Magazine, DOX Magazine, BOMB Magazine’s arts blog, Guernica, Senses of Cinema, Desistfilm, Kosovo 2.0, and The Calvert Journal. She is also a member of FIPRESCI, CAMIRA and Verband der deutschen Filmkritik. She has also recently worked as a freelance writer and editor for the Berlin-based DOX BOX Association, a new initiative for Arab World filmmakers.
“Can one be giddy about nonfiction film programming? If so, that’s us. Pamela is energetic, capable, and ridiculously well-versed in new currents in nonfiction cinema – especially work coming out of central and eastern Europe. She’s a huge asset to our team and will help bring a raft of creative ideas to True/False”, says Co-Conspirator Wilson.
Cohn will act as a Festival Programmer as well as the point person for re-imagining fest panels, the Great Wall (True/False’s experimental outdoor movie screen), and as the fest liaison with the Based On a True Story (BOATS) journalism conference.
According to Cohn, “To say this new opportunity has the words ‘Dream Job’ written all over it would be an understatement. I have enormous admiration for Paul, David and Chris, and am so proud to be able to work beside them as we continue to grow one of the best film festivals in the world.”
If one of your favorite parts of True/False is chatting with our visiting guests, you’re not alone. The festival environment is an auspicious one for fest-goers and filmmakers to connect – both groups energized by the weekend and excited to share ideas about their experiences.
Elaine Sheldon and Sarah Ginsburg have been working on a new podcast in the same spirit. She Does: Conversations with Creative Minds launched in January of this year, and has since been consistently connecting listeners with women artists of all stripes. These conversations are personal and professional – maybe the kind you’d have over coffee at Uprise right after watching a new film?
From their site:
“Whether up and coming or well-established, She Does features notable women of all generations, working at the intersection of media, film, journalism, art and technology. We bring you stories of what makes these women tick, their beginnings, their roadblocks, and the delightful bits in between”
It’s clear that the ladies of She Does have great taste, because they’ve featured tons of True/False makers, musicians, and guests:
Upon the start of a new festival season, a few important notes regarding True/False film submissions:
Filmmakers, Festivals, Friends…we’ve quit Withoutabox! We built our own application tool, available directly on our website here: truefalse.org/submit
Before applying, please consider these thoughts, in response to some (very) frequently asked questions.
1. On Waivers:
Waivers are for festival alumni only (and occasionally, based on need, for filmmakers in developing nations). We understand many many doc makers are doing so on a tight budget – but we need to charge a fee. To us, the fee is a guarantee that we take care of your film. That your film is being watched all the way through, at least once, by a vetted member of our screening committee, and that we will take the time to send you a personalized message whether or not we are able to program your film.
2. On Premiere Requirements:
No, we do not have strict premiere status requirements. We aspire to be a platform for the world’s greatest nonfiction cinema, and when we come across vital new work, we want to share it with our audiences. However, we screen fewer than forty features and twenty-five shorts, so when a film is already available, or is about to be available, to our audiences, it feels less urgent. As such, we very rarely program films — particularly features — that are, or have been available online, theatrically, on TV or via on demand. We typically play films very early in their lives, though many may have played other festivals.
3. On Programming Goals:
True/False is open to all works of nonfiction cinema. We also consider chimeric works that straddle the line between nonfiction and fiction. We value formal inventiveness and craftsmanship; we give no extra points to “important” messages or stories. True/False does not screen didactic work nor does it play documentaries best suited for the small screen.
We can’t wait to see what you’ve been making this year!
When Associate Producer Un Kyong Ho got the text from Director Cynthia Hill that their film, Private Violence, had been nominated for an Emmy, she tried to play it cool.
Un Kyong was on a video conference call with other Fledgling Fund grantees. “I probably looked like an insane person to the other folks on the call,” Un Kyong said. “I was all over the place! I’m still all over the place!”
Cynthia was on a shoot that day for another project and said the Emmy was the furthest thing from her mind.
The last time we saw these two filmmakers, along with Private Violence’s main subjects, Kit Gruelle and Deanna Walters, they were at True/False 2014 as True Life Fund recipients. During their time here, they visited school-wide assemblies for all four Columbia Public High Schools and held community meetings on domestic violence.
Since T/F, the film has made its international premier at Hot Docs in Toronto and won the Human Rights Award at Full Frame Festival in Durham, NC. (Durham, “The Bull City:” Cynthia’s hometown and not far from where Private Violence was filmed.)
“It feels good to get the accolades,” Un Kyong said, “But at the end of the day, we want to make change around this issue.”
Figuring out how to measure change when it comes to an issue like domestic violence is, not surprisingly, far from simple. Sure, there are national statistics, but with a subject that is so deeply hidden, and, well, private, it can feel impossible to know if and how the needle moves.
“I remember being in Kentucky in a small college town to screen the film,” Kit said. She met a young man who had come to the screening by mistake, perhaps because he misunderstood the event.
“But then he realized he needed to stay and talk about his experience with his abusive father, who was a local business man, the kind of man no one would think was an abuser.” Kit said. “It was one of the most powerful experiences I had. We all sat and listened to him talk, and then cry, about the abuse he and his mother suffered. After he was done, he walked out. Most of his friends left with him. The rest of us sat there for a few minutes, thinking about what we had just seen. This is domestic violence in America: still rampant, still too hidden.”
This is a big part of the work of Private Violence: making the violence less private. Creating safe spaces for people to share stories. Opening up dialogues and conversations that have yet to be breached.
“They brought together 80 stakeholders from across their community,” Cynthia said. “Everyone from the professors, social workers, advocates, medical health professionals, folks from across the legal landscape including lawyers and judges, law enforcement officers, and even the mayor.”
The Private Violence team sees Cincinnati as a model for the power documentaries can yield, and they’re working on a how-to guide based on the summit for other communities. In October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, they’ll be in Sioux City, Iowa and back in Durham, North Carolina for similar events.
Along with these events, the Private Violence team has been working on an immediate metric post-screening. If you were at a showing at T/F 2014, you may have remembered those little tear-off surveys you were asked to fill out right after the film.
Here is where I admit that as someone who was passing collection buckets for the True Life Fund immediately after the screening, and overseeing large quantities of cash that were mixed in with slips of papers, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the surveys. Part of me wondered how valuable they could be. And now I must eat my hat. Because while I don’t get excited about numbers too often, the stats form this survey blew me away.
From the four-question survey, they were were able to determine that of the respondents:
94% felt the film had increased their understanding of domestic violence;
75% had asked the question “Why doesn’t she just leave?” of a person in a domestic violence situation;
86% felt they would respond differently to domestic violence victims after watching the film;
83% said they would consider getting involved in advocacy efforts in their community.
“From that quick survey, we learned that the ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ reaction to domestic violence is a pervasive part of our victim-blaming culture,” Un Kyong said. “We also learned that the film shifted people’s thinking around DV and potentially helped to activate an audience to move towards change. That is huge.”
The survey generated a bit of buzz; it was the first time a doc had used a tear survey to measure audience response and impact. Un Kyong said they were proud to have created a tool that other filmmakers can use to capture the kind of data that might help with partnerships or funding. (For a great interview on measuring a film’s impact, we’d direct you to an episode with Lina Srivastava from our friends over at She Does podcast.)
So while I’ve heard these women –Cynthia, Un Kyong, Kit, and Deanna— call their time on the road with Private Violence a “listening tour,” another way of thinking about it is as an attention tour. Attention is being paid to survivors, attention is being drawn to an open secret, and they’re exploring the question of just how much action can come from the attention of one film. As for the Emmy, there’s a reason we call the nomination a nod: it’s one more attentive glance.
At this year’s Boone Dawdle (August 15th – get your passes before they’re gone!), we’re embracing our inner headbangers and throwing a special metal-themed “aireoke” challenge for six lucky teams – and one very lucky audience. Beyond mere air guitar or lip synching, this metal mayhem calls upon our contestants to form an entire air band – riffing, strutting, and flailing in synch to a heavy metal anthem of their choice. Each band member plays along in time with the song (air guitar, air drums, air bass, air keyboard, etc), in what is sure to be an epic, high energy performance!
Before the film begins, these six “bands” of Dawdle attendees will strum, pound, and wail their way to victory. Winners will be selected by audience approval, with the film’s producer, Tom Davis, as the final judge and official tie-breaker. Victors will receive accolades and glory – as well as sweet prizes, like Busker Bands to the 2016 festival, and a totally sweet trophy from local artist and T/F stalwart Michael Marcum. Runners up will also get a (sweet) prize (TBA).
See the application for additional rules & guidance: HERE
Applications will be accepted between July 17 and August 3.
For inspiration, we’ll be posting some of our favorite videos on our Facebook page between now and the Dawdle. Check out this YouTube playlist to get you into the spirit of the event. You’ll find classic rock/metal videos, as well as a performance or two by Unlocking the Truth, the band featured in the Dawdle film.
That film, Breaking a Monster, is a heavy metal coming-of-age story. Discovered as pre-teens busking in Times Square, the three members of Unlocking the Truth deal not only with taking their first steps into the complexities of adulthood, but simultaneously making the leap to being professional musicians. With a savvy music industry vet as a manager, can they navigate their way to a million dollar record deal while avoiding the pitfalls of fame and the dark side of the music biz?
The screening will be followed by a Q&A with producer Tom Davis. For more pre-Dawdle fun, watch the short film that inspired Breaking a Monster:
Set entirely at night, Field Niggas (T/F 2015) takes us to the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem and introduces us to its faces. Not just avoiding but repudiating condescension, director Khalik Allah’s camera, a longtime, welcome presence in the neighborhood, spotlights his subjects in stunningly composed, dignified portraits that are hypnotically woven with street images. The non-synch audio track consists of conversations with and among those faces: dreams, regrets, arguments, affection, observations, opinions. Field Niggas is a mesmerizing viewing experience, that finds its rhythm using field hollers. The title draws from Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots” speech, in which he targets the power balance that creates a dangerous wedge between the “house slaves” and the “field slaves.” Khalik Allah’s singular, trenchant film serves as an ardent call to rise above social constructs.
Since True/False, Field Niggas has screened at Sarasota, Maryland and FIDMarseille, where it received a special mention from the Marseille Espérance Jury. This Friday, July 17 at the Metrotech Commons, Rooftop Films is hosting a free screening of Field Niggas. For more information, visit this page. We caught up with Khalik on the phone earlier this week.
T/F: I’ve heard you discuss your history with photography, but I don’t know much about your relationship with movies.
KA: I never was interested in movies. I used to think movies were boring. I was into TV. But my brothers—I’ve got a lot of brothers—they always used to steal the remote and just start watching movies. So I saw Larry Clark’s Kids. I remember studying that when I was kid. I was 9 when that came out.
When I made the decision to start dabbling in films, I went to the library, and whenever I saw the Criterion Collection, I just got that DVD. That’s how I found out about Kurosawa and so many different films. Taxi Driver, everything from Scorsese. I just started following different directors and studying them. Jim Jarmusch, obviously Spike Lee, a bunch of different people. And then when I started studying documentary more, it was Werner Herzog. And the idea that I can make any type of film because all these different directors have their own style, that inspired me.
So this simple library card afforded me an entire education. Then I got Netflix. At one point I wasn’t even working, and I was watching 50 movies a week. I was trying to train my eye. All those Bergman movies and his DP Sven Nykvist. And the Woody Allen films. Studying the DPs behind these films and their ideas, their philosophies, their personal lives, their orientation to light. How Sven Nykvist used to carry a 35mm still camera and photograph the light days before he would shoot a scene just to see what the light would look like at a given point in the day. These guys are scientists. Kurosawa and the movie Rashomon, he used mirrors to light a lot of those scenes, you know? All those people are inspirations, and mentally, I’ve got a store house, a visual library that I think about.
One of my favorite movies is Heat by Michael Mann. I remember I was having an argument one time with a person who was saying that every person in the movie is wearing makeup, and I was like, “Naw, that’s not true.” There are a lot of actors who don’t wear makeup, who keep it real. And I think of Michael Mann and his movies, especially Heat—that shit was 100 percent real. I’m more of a realist with my style of filmmaking. I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I want to go into narrative where it’s fictional but it’s done in such a real way. Everything about it is real. Nobody is wearing makeup. People are doing real things. The props are real.
Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2014)
You mentioned Werner Herzog’s documentaries. Did you watch others? Has your relationship with documentary changed over time?
Obviously Nanook of the North and Robert Flaherty. Stuff I studied because I was told to study those things. I looked into the origins of documentary. Filmmaking started out as documentary, you know? But then a lot of narrative films are also documentaries, like James Toback’s Black and White. The thing I like about James Toback is that he’ll improvise a lot of scenes, which gives his fictional pieces a documentary type of feeling. I studied so much it’s kind of a blur—a big, abstract idea, all these different people and what they did.
Makes you think about how much is going on now that’s not being documented. That in itself is the inspiration to make documentaries. It really comes down to how creative you want to be. I think there’s a whole nother language. I was trying to come up with another language with Field Niggas. Because I could have had that movie talking about the meth labs, drug abuse. More of a cerebral analysis, talking-head type thing, interviewing politicians in the neighborhood. But that’s been done. Another thing that keeps things interesting is creative documentary.
I haven’t seen it, but based on the trailer, I assume your first feature-length documentary, Popa Wu, a 5% Story, is more conventional?
Yes, definitely. A lot of festivals are asking me if Field Niggas is my first film, and in a way, I feel like saying ‘yes’ because it’s the first time I’ve been playing festivals. To me, the Popa Wu film—it took me four years to make, it was like college. That was my bachelor’s degree, that movie. Nothing ever happened with it, no distribution, no film festival plays. I sold it, but I sold it to a niche group of people: the Five Percenters, people who are within that demographic, that type of knowledge, the Five Percent Nation. It was tailored for them, but I actually wanted it to go beyond that and be a much bigger thing. I put four years into that project, and I put less than three months into Field Niggas. And Field Niggas went forty times further. But that film set me up. It was an education, my training.
You say three months, but it wouldn’t exist had you not spent years hanging out in this part of Harlem. I read that when you first started shooting in the neighborhood, there was some resistance. I’m wondering if you could walk me through the very first night.
Well, the first time I came, there was no negative experience. It was in the daytime. I was in and out. It wasn’t like I was lingering on the corner, taking pictures like I do now. I didn’t know that was going to be the focal point for me.
Spring 2011, I’m out there, I’m shooting. I see a crackhead with a bald head, it’s a woman, and she had a pacifier around her neck, hanging like a necklace. She asked me for a dollar, and I said “Yeah, yeah, I’ll give you a dollar. Just let me take a picture of you.” And she was giving me the middle finger in the picture, and I said, “Yeah, yeah that’s good. Keep giving me the middle finger, but put the pacifier in your mouth.” She put the pacifier in her mouth, she’s giving me the middle finger, and all I hear is this brother behind me say, “Yo, brother, we don’t want to be seen like that! We don’t want to be seen like that!” So I start addressing him. “I’m out here as a photographer. I’m documenting the positive, the negative and the neutral.” I kind of engage him. We go back and forth for a while. He was an MTA officer. He had his name tag on, so I just kept calling him by his name. “Yeah, Mike”—his name was Mike—”Yeah, Mike, I’m a documentarian, I’m filming 360 degrees.”
Whenever there’s an argument in the streets in Harlem, people just congregate around it and start instigating. I just stepped off. I just said, “Peace!” There was another person listening, an older Muslim guy. Later that night I came back. It wasn’t even dark yet. Me and that Muslim guy were talking. He said, “Yeah, I heard what you were saying, man. I think it’s positive. I think it’s positive that you are a photographer, there’s truth to be documented.” So I took that and I left that night.
Fast forward. I went to other places and kept shooting downtown Manhattan. I would just come back sporadically to shoot 125th and Lex. But when I developed that film, and I’d seen that picture of that woman, the crackhead with the pacifier and the middle finger. I was like, “Yeah man, I’ve got to shoot. There’s a lot of light on this corner for me to start working with.”
So fast forward now to November 21, 2011. At 11pm, I drove to the city, parked in the Lower East Side. I took the train all night. I took the train to 125th and Lex. At 2am, I walk into a congregation of crackheads and took a shot. And there was a shot of Frenchie—that was the first night that I meant Frenchie. And basically I overcranked the film in the camera, and now the film is broken in the camera. And I still had a pocketful of film. I wanted to go shoot all night, so I needed a darkroom to take the film out without exposing it and ruining it. I was so serious, I was about to hop on the train tracks just to use the darkness. But when I was contemplating, I saw a woman coming out of the janitor’s closet, and I just told her, “I’m a film student at NYU, I need to use the janitor’s closet for the darkness.”
Yeah, I was lying to her (laughs) I basically went in there, took off my coat, put the camera in there and used it as a dark bag. Then I was able to reload and keep shooting. But as soon as I got home that morning, I was worried the film was ruined. So I just developed it, and I see these pictures of Frenchie, and I was like “Damn, that’s it. This is my corner.” That night just consecrated it. This is where I’m going to shoot.
Watching your films back-to-back, you see the growth. In “Urban Rashomon,” you buy Frenchie some K2 and then regret it after he acts up in a corner store. At the beginning of your next film, “Antonyms of Beauty,” you ask Frenchie about that night, and he says he was ‘acting’ for you. Can you talk about that idea of performance?
In Frenchie’s case, he considered his life a performance. Frenchie got hit by a train and survived it. I asked him about it afterwards, and he said he was just acting. Nobody was there filming. Nobody was there to photograph it. I wasn’t there. But he said, “I was just acting.” He was in the hospital, he broke his pelvis. His foot was injured ever since. With me and him, that day, he probably would turn it up a little more for the camera. Maybe, potentially. But the stories I hear— you know, Frenchie’s dead now—but the stories I was hearing about what he was doing in my absence were more interesting than a lot of the stuff when I was there taking photographs of him. He’s a deep soul. He’s a deep, deep, deep person, and I feel like we were destined to come together for this film project. There was an exchange of light and mental energy between Frenchie and I throughout this whole of process of “Urban Rashomon,” “Antonyms of Beauty,” those times.
With K2, I felt guilty afterwards. He asked me for it, and I told him I want to take a few of photographs. So my concept was, “OK, I’m taking some of his time, at least let me give something to him that he wants.” And that’s also going to make the work that much more interesting. And then I’m going to have a story that much more interesting based on all this. So I go ahead and buy him the K2, but when he started foaming from the mouth and rolling on the ground in the corner store, then I felt bad about that. And I told myself I wouldn’t do that again. But the next time I see him in person, he was smoking K2 anyway. I see him laying down on the ground smoking some K2, acting kind of normal, so I just started questioning him. “Naw, naw, naw I was acting.” Then I was seeing if he could control himself off of it. And again, we were spending time together. He was giving me a lot—answering my questions, giving his time to do this photography project and working as a subject. I was like, “Yo, here, I’m a scientist. I deal with experiments. Here, you’re a grown man.” He was fifty some odd years. And I didn’t feel guilty about it. I felt good about it. It was just making it more interesting.
Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to make Field Niggas without those two preceding films. And K2 has been a piece of all of them, from “Urban Rashomon” to “Antonyms of Beauty” to Field Niggas, K2 is present. And right now it’s still there.
So it’s still legal?
The last I’ve heard on the law—and the law is constantly changing around K2, which has so many different names—is that it’s legal to sell. It’s legal for a person to buy it at the corner store, but it’s illegal person for that person to smoke it in public on the streets. That kind of contradiction in the law is very bad because these people don’t have homes. They don’t really leave that corner, so they’re going to smoke it in public, and that’s grounds to get arrested or grounds for a citation. And you don’t show up in court, now there’s a warrant issued for their arrest. And these aren’t even criminals, and now they’re being put through the system just for smoking a substance that was legal for them to buy. It’s just real disgusting when you really look at it. I look at it as a gentrification ploy to try to move people off that point in Harlem. Because 125th and Lex is the last frontier.
You’re still shooting out there?
Yeah, it’s very interesting. A lot of people say, “Yo, Khalik, are you going to leave 125th and Lex? You going to go do another project?” But if people look at what I’ve been doing, it’s staying within the same environment but elevating it. Elevating my perception of it. So first, I was taking stills, then I made a documentary. Now I want to make a feature film. Right in the same place. That for me is a way to keep interested. I continue to photograph the area because photography is how I build my energy up. Photography is like the mulch of the movie. Definitely for Field Niggas. That’s why I tried to simulate the aesthetic of my photography in the movie.
Do you see yourself continuing to use your voice in such a prominent way?
I actually see it coming less and less. I think that ultimately the project will dictate that, how I feel about the project. Growing up, the path that I went through was the Five Percent Nation. I’ll probably keep a lot of knowledge in there, a lot of myself. But the way we as Five Percenters look at Islam—it came from the Nation of Islam, and then a man named Father Allah gave it to the kids in the streets. Those were the young Five Percenters. It was still considered Islam but as a culture, not as a religion. As a way of life. And ISLAM, the acronym, was “I Stimulate Life and Matter” or “I Stimulate Life Around Me.” That’s how we always broke it down. So when I’m in my movies and I’m talking, I’m just trying to stimulate different things. In Field Niggas, I’m asking people on drugs, “What do you think happens when you die?” The big questions of life, asking that to someone you wouldn’t have asked. It’s a form of stimulating them. But in Field Niggas’’ case, I tried to cut out a lot of my questions, but then there wasn’t enough context. You would just hear the person’s answer, and a lot of the heart was missing from it. You had to feel me, to know where I was coming from. It was more compassionate. So it was good there. But it wouldn’t be good everywhere (laughs).
I recently watched a rough cut of this Mexican documentary. The director is filming in a Canadian park where a community of Aboriginals lives. They’re frequently drunk on camera, and they’re expressing a lot of frustrations with the government and with society. Anyway, in the opening minutes, the director says something about his opposition to ‘empathy.’ He thinks that’s the wrong way to approach people. In this case, he points out that he grew up in Mexico, and he is in no way capable of understanding the pain his Canadian subjects are feeling. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about that, about this idea of empathy.
Empathy has two different manifestations. The way that I use it is not to join in suffering and thus lighten the burden. My form of empathy is to tell them that they’re innocent, that they can’t be hurt. That regardless, whatever the body or the ego is going through, they’re still invulnerable. So I’m not going to share in a suffering that I don’t even believe exists. I can look at them in what the world would consider suffering, in what the world would consider misery, and still see the light there and still see beauty there.
But if I was going there, “Oh, I feel so bad for you, what happened with your mom and dad when you were little? What happened? What brought you to the streets? Why are you strung out on drugs? Oh, I feel so bad.” That’s corny. That type of shit—that’s the Christian Children’s Fund. That’s a 30-second PSA on TV. That’s nothing. What I was trying to do, and what I feel I’m continuing to do in my documentary work, is speak to the people who usually don’t get a chance to speak and give them a voice. But first I would have to be interested in their world, my own self.
But empathy, there’s two forms of it. Empathizing to join someone’s suffering. People do that all the time. “My mother died,” “Oh, my mother died too!” Or “I’m having trouble in my relationship.” “Oh, so am I!” And then they start sharing war stories about negative shit. The other form of empathy is to be like, “Oh, your mother died, but there’s no such thing as death. Your mother’s still with you. She served her purpose in your life.” Start talking about the positive shit. That’s my form of empathy.
What kind of negative responses have you received to the film?
Mostly all the responses to my film have been positive. The negative ones have been mostly positive in the sense that—you know, people want to know why you named it ‘Field Niggas.’ Some people have ideas of exploitation simply because I’m dealing with people who are poor, even though I don’t regard them as poor. As I said, with my empathy, I still see them as rich. Because money is nothing in reality, so I’m looking at reality. Fuck if the world agrees with me.
A guy, Neil Young from the Hollywood Reporter, just wrote a good feature about Field Niggas. Totally unexpected. But I read what he wrote, and I liked what he wrote. Even though some of it could have sounded like it was coming at me because he basically felt that the first half of the film was stronger than the second half. He felt I was tooting my horn in the movie, that I was becoming a little too flamboyant of a character in the movie. I asked some people questions, “What you think about me as a documentarian, or as a photographer, in the area?” Then they would say something real positive, and I kept that in the film. It could have been perceived as arrogance, but that definitely wasn’t my intention. My intention was to show that I’m actually part of this community and as a filmmaker, don’t think you can come here and just shoot. It took me three years to do this.
Even in the film, I say the only other camera besides me is the surveillance camera. Because I don’t see other photographers where I shoot. When I was shooting in the Lower East Side, there were photographers everywhere I looked. When I started shooting, that was part of the decision-making process when I chose that area of Harlem. Because there was nobody documenting it. Even Bruce Davidson, he did 110th Street, but I haven’t seen anyone do 125th and Lex.
But I read what Neil Young wrote, and I thought it was great. I thought he liked my film. He was very poetic, and he was very descriptive. And his words and the way he wrote what he wrote, it was a good piece. I put it on my Facebook. But some people even commented on my Facebook post, “This dude didn’t know what he was talking about.” But I look at it like, he liked the movie, and there were parts he didn’t like. I do that with films.
Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2014)
I found a quote from you, “I feel like I only started talking in my twenties. I’m 28 but I’ll be silent in my thirties, until I’m forty.” You’re now just a few months from 30. Do you feel the same way?
That’s actually been put into application now. So much has happened even since I been back from France, and I haven’t really been putting it out there. I used to have so much news, and I would blast it on Facebook. But now I’m just getting into myself more. When I was a teenager, I was more quiet. I was just working. I was trying to figure shit out, studying, reading books. Then when I was 20, I put all that into application. I started making films, started becoming a photographer. And now, I feel like I see what it is, and I can be effective at a distance. I can be more effective. Sometimes you get a lot more work done in silence. And I’m just thinking as far as publicly saying shit, there’s just so much going on, let other people talk about it. Let other people talk about it, but keep working. Give them something to talk about.
Thank you all so much for voting, sharing, and helping us these last few weeks in the Neighborhood Assist contest! Our True/False education program hinges on volunteers and rally-rousers like you. We’re continually floored by our community’s support– and it’s because YOU are what makes up True/False.
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