Dispatch from the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival: Empathy at the Movies

Dispatch from the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival: Empathy at the Movies February 20, 2017


The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is currently being held in Missoula, Montana. This year, it features 210 films, being shown over the course of ten days, February 17-26. I had a chance to visit this past Saturday. With limited time at the festival, I focused my attention on films that would guide me to greater knowledge and empathy on important social issues that matter to me as a Christian, particularly that of racial justice.

In this dispatch from the festival, first, I’ll offer quick summaries of some of my favorite films, and why you should see them too. Then, I’ll offer some general thoughts on documentary film as a category and what it contributes to the world when it’s at its best.

Whose Streets (dir./prod. Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis)

Whose StreetsThis film which documents the Ferguson uprising from the point of view of the citizens on the ground, rather than from the perspective of the media interpretation of what was happening, was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. I found it visceral and laden with grief and anger deep in a long-term historical context of a community being ignored and discriminated against over and over again.

The surrounding context of any incident of police violence is what is too often ignored by the white community, in my opinion. We see the anger and because we have not been steeped in that context and in the long-term destruction of trust by those in leadership (police, elected officials, etc.), we don’t understand why in one particular instance a community would distrust the police.

Increasingly, the Black Lives Matter movement makes me think of the American Revolution, through which our country was founded. In that case, the offense was taxation without representation and the sense that Great Britain was pushing the colonies around. I would argue that what is happening today is much more imminent and life-threatening to black communities. And yet, the predominant method of resistance among protesters is nonviolence. It makes me wonder whether American settlers might have found a way to justice and independence from Britain without violent resistance. At the very least, the more I learn of the unrelenting injustices against the black community, the more I am astonished at their largely nonviolent methods of protest.

Whose Streets is probably not the place to start if you are just beginning to learn about the injustices against the black community, however (see * below for recommended resources to start with.) It is an unvarnished, uncensored expression of grief that sometimes overflows into rage. If I had seen this film a couple of years ago, I’m not sure I would have understood it. Even now, as I watched the film, there were times when I disagreed with some of the tactics of some of the people–though it’s clear from the film that there are different viewpoints on how to resist on the ground. (None of them involve killing people, by the way, but one organizer excuses the burning of a convenience store. She makes a thoughtful point that outrage comes about at the destruction of a gas station but not of a life, but I’m still not on board with destruction of property as a tactic–and neither are some of the other people in the film.) There is also a disagreement in tactics between the older and younger generations, and even President Obama is criticized by some of the young activists for trying to calm everyone down without addressing the real issue of injustice (at least at first). Additionally frustrating, despite later refutations of some of the key facts of the Mike Brown killing (“hands up, don’t shoot”), these facts do not get airtime in the film–even late in the film. And some conservatives will find frustrating some of the sexual ethics displayed in the film. All of these factors make the film less accessible to conservative viewers or those just beginning to think about issues of racial justice. (Of course, the film wasn’t really made for those folks.)

But all that aside, Whose Streets is a valuable piece of film because it shows us how the people in the uprising were thinking and feeling on the ground. It doesn’t edit out what we the viewer might find offensive. In that way, we are seeing a truthful account of people’s perspective. The quotation “We are occupying the streets that we paid for” summarizes the viewpoint of the film. Whose streets are they? The people’s streets! Most moving in the film was the ending where portions of the Declaration of Independence are slowly displayed on the screen:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

*I recommend the Reformed African-American Network Podcast, Pass the Mic (and ESPECIALLY this episode), for a careful, historical explanation of Black Lives Matter and a careful thought process on how to relate to it as a Christian. I also recommend the books The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson for the larger context on “why the black community is upset.” Finally, I recommend the ESPN documentary film series OJ: Made in America for historical context on why black communities distrust police and the documentary 13th (available on Netflix) for context on mass incarceration.

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