What’s in a Name?

Travis Wilkerson, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, 2017, color, sound, 70 minutes.

DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN?, Travis Wilkerson’s 2017 film/performance, was one of the strongest works at a chilling Sundance Film Festival, where the temperatures averaged five degrees Fahrenheit at night and many works spoke of destruction and suffering so great as to make one feel like a spoiled brat for even mentioning the weather.

A veteran of Sundance, Wilkerson showed, as usual, in the New Frontier section, once devoted to experimental films of all genres but now largely a showcase for the Sundance Institute’s Virtual Reality initiative. Which is a pity, because however much I’d like to support Sundance’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for the “new frontier” of VR, nothing I’ve seen at this festival or elsewhere in the past three years convinces me that it is a technology suited to anything other than advertising, gaming, military procedures, and medical techniques.

I could elaborate on the eight VR pieces I “experienced” (there were more than two dozen installed in two large venues), but I’d rather not, except to say that they ranged from the tedious to the crudely exploitative. Moreover, the opening ten days of the Trump presidency was hardly the time to celebrate a technology that is defined by its capacity to derange one’s perceptual apparatus so that one experiences, almost always in insolation, an alt-reality. And in answer to one of VR’s staunchest proponents, I don’t believe that the “visceral sensation” of being in immediate proximity to a dying coral reef, experienced for twenty seconds inside a clumsy headset, will make anyone who wasn’t already an environmental activist metamorphose into one. It’s more likely that Jeff Orlowski’s eye- and mind-opening documentary Chasing Coral—for which Chasing Coral: The VR Experience, is, at most, an attractive trailer—would have that effect.

Nothing could be further from VR than the direct, quietly confrontational human-to-human power of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? For twenty years, Wilkerson, one of the most rigorous and intelligent American documentarians, has been making films that interrogate the malevolent effects of capitalism on the American Dream, often digging up long-buried crimes to show how they continue to shape our lives. His analyses are firmly leftist, and his practices are inspired by the Latin American Third Cinema Movement, specifically by Santiago Álvarez, whom he met a few years before the Cuban filmmaker’s death in 1998. Unlike most American documentarians, Wilkerson shoots and edits his films and does not work within public television. Sundance’s New Frontier began to embrace him with his 2002 An Injury to One, which investigated the all-but-forgotten 1917 lynching of Wobbly union leader Frank Little in Butte, Montana, by enforcers hired by the Anaconda Mining Company. The murder was just the beginning of the injurious practices that destroyed workers and the environment throughout the century and beyond.

William Faulkner’s now-famous observation, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” could apply to An Injury to One, but it is even more apropos to Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, which, like all of Faulkner’s novels, is set in the deep South, in the small town of Dothan, Alabama, where S. E. Branch, a white supremacist and Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann in Branch’s grocery store. Branch was charged with murder, but the case never went to trial and he suffered no consequences. In the opening moments of the piece, Wilkerson explains that the idea to make a film, which would investigate both his great-grandfather and his victim, came when he was at a protest in South Los Angeles after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. “I couldn’t get it out of my head how much the story of Trayvon Martin reminded me of a family legend.” From this protest comes the “Say His/Her Name” chant that Wilkerson uses to mark the film’s chapters. At the end of the piece, Bill Spann’s name is added to the list.

At Sundance, Wilkerson sat to the side of the screen, facing the audience, and read aloud the voiceover narration. He told me that at a Creative Capital retreat (Did You Wonder was largely funded by the grant-giving organization) he presented the film as a work in progress. Since he hadn’t yet mixed his voiceover into the sound track, he read it live as he did at Sundance, and he found that this performance strategy had a powerful effect on both him and the audience. The power has to do with it being a personal story, told in the first-person; in sharing it with an audience, Wilkerson doesn’t let anyone, including himself, off the hook. “This isn’t a white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.” Wilkerson plans, for the sake of getting the film out in the world, to integrate the voiceover into the existing sound track, but he will be doing a live reading at the few venues that are already booked. (The next is March 2–5 at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri.)

Grief and anger are palpable in the images, music, and texts that make up Did You Wonder Who Shot the Gun? Wilkerson collages family photos (one of himself as an infant on great-granddaddy Branch’s lap), 8-mm home movies, photos of documents and newsprint articles, on-camera interviews, and, most tellingly, handheld footage from his investigations. There’s the decaying wood structure that was the scene of the crime; the abandoned hospital where Spann died; and the grave in the black cemetery in another town miles away, to which he was directed by an African American clerk after the white woman in charge told him that there’s no record of Spann.

That almost turns out to be the case. All that’s left of Bill Spann is an unmarked grave. His killer, however, does not lack for memorializing images and people who remember him. Many, but not all, of the memories are bad. Wilkerson’s mother is one of three sisters who grew up in the same town as their grandfather. Jean, the eldest, is an active member of the White Supremacist League of the South. Wilkerson’s mother and her sister Jill want nothing to do with her. One of the questions that haunts me weeks after I saw the piece is how to make sense of that difference. How is it that some people escape the racism and misogyny in which they are raised (Branch abused his wife and daughters and likely killed more than one black man) and some cling to it as their reason for existence? Wilkerson doesn’t offer an answer. But raising the question—at this moment when families are torn apart by what they believe America is and should be—is more than enough.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? ran January 20 and 22 at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre as part of the Sundance Film Festival (January 19–31).