Mark Lester, Class of 1984, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes.


AFTER THE EMERGENCE of alluring Canadian production subsidies in the late 1990s, moviegoers of the aughts became inured to watching downtown Vancouver fill in for AnyCity, USA, in a parade of multiplex productions that managed to extract bland back-lot anonymity from location shooting. But Anthology Film Archives’ twelve-film series “Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North” pays tribute to a very different, pioneering era of runaway production, part of an ongoing sesquicentennial celebration of our neighbors above to be followed by “1970s Canadian Independents,” beginning at Anthology on March 9.

The story of Canadian cinema, like that of the Canadian confederation’s birth, is told in no small part through heroic acts of legislation. It was the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC—now TeleFilm Canada) that gave the heretofore underdeveloped Canadian fiction feature industry a shot in the arm, while the golden age of “tax shelter” movies began with the 1974 institution of the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA), offering a 100 percent tax deferment for investments in productions deemed sufficiently Canadian in cast and crew. It’s the offspring of the CCA—the so-called Canuxploitation films whose history is lovingly detailed at the website Canuxploitation.com—that “Gimme Shelter” makes its focus.

Many of the auteurs of Canuxploitation were, in fact, adventuring Americans, such as Mark Lester, whose Class of 1984 (1982) is one of the industry’s sacred texts. An unholy marriage of Up the Down Staircase (1967) and Death Wish (1974), it stars Mandingo’s Perry King as a band teacher with a chinstrap beard trying to make a difference in the postapocalyptic environment of Abraham Lincoln High School, whose walls are covered with surreal graffiti. Lincoln flies the stars and stripes out front, though little details give away the game—the pronunciation of “sorry” like it’s a county in England, a drug deal involving a young Canadian actor billed as Michael Fox that goes down in the “washroom,” a blueprint for a “summer cottage” hanging in the drafting class, and Roddy McDowall—who gives a disconcertingly committed performance—flipping his car and dying in a fireball in front of Barberian’s Steak House at the intersection of Elm and Yonge in downtown Toronto. In fairness, Lester does keep the CN Tower out of frame.

David Cronenberg, The Brood, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 92 minutes.


Class of 1984 pushes its clichés until they pop with a kind of delirious pleasure, though here there are also films that take a more traditional path toward greatness. Toronto’s own David Cronenberg is represented by The Brood (1979), his third and most totally successful venture into body-horror exploitation, in which emotional repression—that shared specialty of cold-climate countries—breeds actual children, with Samantha Eggar as the proud mother of a litter of homicidal rage babies. (It should be mentioned that almost all of the series will be projected on film, and if this is the same print of The Brood that I saw when freshly struck a couple of years ago, its traumatic images have never looked better.) We also have Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), today acknowledged as one of the progenitors (and exemplars) of the slasher movie cycle, which employed an earlier version of the stalker-point-of-view shot that John Carpenter would reproduce in his Halloween (1978), here accomplished without benefit of Steadicam technology. Camera operator Bert Dunk wore a rig mounted on his head while crawling through the windows and shimmying down from the attic of the menaced sorority house on the University of Toronto campus, where the film lays its scene. Just as impressive as Clark’s technical acumen are the performances he gets from an excellent ensemble cast, including SCTV’s Andrea Martin and, as the house’s sybaritic, much-sloshed sister, an extremely charming Margot Kidder in a choker-and-chambray combo, fresh off Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and in full flower of scream queendom.

Among these exploitation efforts there are also art-house productions like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980), offering one of the last great roles of Burt Lancaster’s extended Grand Old Man phase, as well as, for those so inclined, a sidebar of “adult” animation features—a category that in the early 1980s was made to refer to films owing a heavy debt to Ralph Bakshi and which devoted a tremendous amount of attention to realistically capturing the motion of pendulous, braless mammaries. Heavy Metal (1981), produced by Ivan “the Terrible” Reitman, is here, an omnibus created by recruiting contributions from animation studios around the world. Canadian company Nelvana received an invite but passed in order to concentrate on its own debut feature Rock & Rule (1983), a multimillion-dollar rock opera set in a dystopian future where anthropomorphic humanoid rodents, including our heroes, striving young band members who bear a striking resemblance to the Cheap Trick lineup, are ruled over by an aristocratic, sepulchral glam rocker who sings with the voice of Lou Reed. The movie was something of a staple at the video store I used to work at; on revisiting, it turns out that it plays quite a bit better when you’re working a cash register half the time.

Clive A. Smith, Rock & Rule, 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 77 minutes.


Zale Dalen’s Skip Tracer (aka Deadly Business [1977]) rewards closer scrutiny, following the misadventures of debt chasers doing their business in the grittier precincts of Vancouver. A sense of the quiet desperation of clinging to middle-class respectability comes across vividly, though the film’s pervasive drabness threatens monotony, as the relentlessly downbeat tone even infests scenes of initial seduction and exhilaration with the repo lifestyle. And while David Petersen usually exudes just the right kind of bland malice in the lead role, he doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off the 180-degree atonement that the script demands. No schnook’s redemption is forthcoming in Sudden Fury (1975), a resourceful zilch-budget thriller set in rural Ontario in which a simmering domestic dispute and a road-rage incident snowball into multiple murders, with Dan Hennessey, an innocent motorist and John Oates stand-in, having to outsmart Dan Hogan, a scheming uxoricidal maniac in a repugnant plaid blazer. Director Brian Damude has an eye for landscape and gets nice suspense effects from simple but well-deployed crosscutting exercises, allowing the movie to work up a real cornered-animal frenzy in the last reel, though the final exchange between befuddled detectives examining the carnage (“It sure is a helluva mess.” “I know, I already said that.”) isn’t exactly one for the books.

Sudden Fury is the lone feature-length directorial outing of Brian Damude, who now teaches at Ryerson University, while Blood Relatives (1978) was Claude Chabrol’s thirtieth credited long-player since debuting 1958’s Le Beau Serge. Blood Relatives is an adaptation of one of Ed McBain Eighty-Seventh Precinct novels with Maritime provinces native Donald Sutherland giving a becalmed read of McBain’s detective Steve Carella, with the action here transposed from Manhattan to Old Montreal. Donald Pleasence, supremely unpleasant in playing a pederast suspect in a teenage girl’s stabbing death, makes a manful attempt at a Québécois accent. However, Blood Relatives suffers from having the French-speakers among its bilingual cast, including Chabrol’s collaborator and wife, Stéphane Audran, poorly dubbed into English. The film does, though, come at the end of the peak period of collaboration between Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier, who died last year, so if the dialogue sometimes falters the film never lacks for visual elegance, particularly in an extended flashback sequence narrated from the victim’s diary, all confectionary pastels laced with strychnine.

The revelations of incest and hidden resentments contained in this key piece of evidence make for yet another of Chabrol’s portraits of the bourgeois family as a kind of lockdown hell, a sentiment that emerges in a very different form in Hungarian-born Nicolas Gessner’s deeply icky The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976). Set in the remote wilds of Maine but shot in the lakeside Victorian village of Knowlton, this southern Quebec Gothic features a Taxi Driver–vintage Jodie Foster left alone to fend off local creeps, including floppy-haired local pedo Martin Sheen, who gets an indelible scene involving a lit cigarette and a pet hamster. As we reach yet another juncture when right- (or left-) thinking Americans threaten to move to Canada in droves, Anthology provides an essential scared-straight session for the potential émigré. Don’t be fooled—these people are terrifying.

Nick Pinkerton

“Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North” runs February 24 through March 8 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Jean Genie

02.20.17

Philippe Garrel, Les hautes solitudes, 1974, black-and-white, silent, 80 minutes. Jean Seberg.


FRENCH WRITER AND FILMMAKER Philippe Garrel’s Les hautes solitudes (1974), a rueful, beautifully shot portrait of American actress Jean Seberg, is only now having its commercial release in the United States. Silent, black-and-white, and nonnarrative, the film has no discernible conceptual pretext. “I conceived Les hautes solitudes as outtakes,” said Garrel, “of a film that never existed in the first place . . . I arrived every day at Seberg’s apartment with my camera and filmed her on the balcony, close to the window, for hours, with no role and no script. No one thought it was a real film, but she was very independent and didn’t care about this.”

The result is a haunting, dreamlike experience, all the more poignant in retrospect. Smiling appreciatively at the man behind the camera, Seberg nevertheless seems at the edge of an unfathomable sadness. (The title, translatable as “the lonely upper-crusts,” might in this case connote “lonely celebrities” or the “lonely famous.”) Long takes, mostly in close-up, reflect the patience and fascination of the filmmaker as much as the openness and willingness of his subject. This is not a portrait in the Warhol mode, of an impenetrable face and inscrutable personality. Seberg seems not only unruffled by the absence of a script but allows raw feelings to surface throughout, thanks, no doubt, to Garrel’s disciplined but empathic gaze.

Undistracted by fictional contrivances or narrative commentary, we inevitably read Seberg’s facial expressions and shifting moods in terms of the turn her life had taken by the time this footage was shot. Born in Iowa and desperate to be an actress, she made her debut in Otto Preminger’s version of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957), a role she won following an international, highly publicized search for the “right” ingénue to play the part. Though “burned at the stake by the critics,” as she put it, her acting was no less arch than that of the pros in Preminger’s self-consciously sardonic treatment and was more compatible with Shaw’s irrepressible, spunky heroine than anyone acknowledged. Somewhat less savaged was her incarnation of the callow, amoral Cecile in Preminger’s adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), and two years later she was famously cast opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless (1960).

But while she was active throughout the 1960s, her career took a nosedive by the end of the decade. She was blacklisted in Hollywood, hounded by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers, and, having gone into premature labor, suffered the tragic loss of the infant daughter of her second marriage (to novelist Romain Gary). Thanks to rumors spread by the bureau and gossip columnists that the child’s father was a Black Panther, she and Gary endured further humiliation by agreeing to an open casket to prove the infant was white. Dependent on drugs for depression, Seberg spent a short time in a psychiatric hospital, and on August 30, 1979, five years after Garrel’s film, her death at age forty was declared suicide. Her career, with clips from various films, is the subject of Mark Rappaport’s documentary From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), a predictably cynical view of the film industry, but not as moving or as personal as Garrel’s non-film.

Garrel, whose films often play on the border between autobiography and fiction, here indulges his much-documented and uncompromising appreciation of women. In the silence that prevails, we are as easily lost in Seberg’s face as we imagine he must have been, transfixed by her stunning beauty and perhaps taunted by a rescue fantasy, shared by the viewer, to save her from the despondency that overtook her life. Outtakes or not, there is not a single indifferent image on the screen, even of those who briefly accompany Seberg. Garrel’s paramour, the model Nico, appears early on, as do the American actress Tina Aumont and Laurent Terzieff. The latter’s two brief appearances are especially unnerving as they embody the very helplessness the director and the viewer feel in the face of Seberg’s fragile, fateful beauty. It seems supremely ironic that this woman should loom before us so magnificently, returned from the ashes like Shaw’s Joan, her outward gaze unflinching, as if to haunt the consciences of those who besieged her in life.

Tony Pipolo

Les hautes solitudes runs February 24 through March 2 at the Metrograph in New York.

Rock of Ages

02.17.17

Pierre Bismuth, Where Is Rocky II?, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes.


A TEASER, says screenwriter Mike White midway through a manic cameo, should tell you exactly what you’re going to get. Where Is Rocky II?, the directorial debut of artist Pierre Bismuth, is a slick, evasive splice of reality TV, documentary, cinema verité, Hollywood spoof, and collateral art history. Real Hollywood. Real artwork. Fake rock. Inspired by a true story: the hunt for a little-known and never-seen work by Ed Ruscha—a fiberglass boulder that has been tucked among the Mojave’s endless spread of granite ones since 1979.

There was almost no story at all—but Bismuth directs by withholding, until the tracks of his confused cast begin to resemble a plot. He enlists real Hollywood writers Anthony Peckham and D.V. DeVincentis to work their magic on the facts while at the same time retaining Michael Scott, an actual private investigator, to hunt down that fake rock. Scott sets out with a name—Ed Ruscha—and a production still from a 1979 BBC short that is the sculpture’s only(?) extant documentation. It’s a good clean laugh when he pulls into a tire shop on Route 62, photo in hand, and asks if anyone has seen a rock. An art-world audience gets a snicker too when Scott starts Googling and then interviewing LA principals from Connie Butler to Eli Broad, who, well—yes, they’ve heard of Ed Ruscha. Everyone’s having such a good time on this madcap side project that they would rather defer the obvious: a simple clue from Ruscha (mercifully reticent) would have cleared things up posthaste.

Especially these days, when the truth is so sorely used, it would be a bit of a spoiler to admit that sometimes mystery is the victim, and that some truths are better left unfound. Yet there are those for whom the mere rumor of art is not enough; the detective needs to nab his man and, as for the screenwriters, if something is hidden, there must be something inside. (“The body of his first dealer, in a cube of resin . . .”) Scott finally tracks down Jim Ganzer, a Malibu surfer who inspired the Dude in Big Lebowski, palled around with the Ferus boys, and, oh yeah, once back in 1977 helped Ruscha fabricate a certain artwork. A map is produced. They set off on the rock’s cold trail. In a tender shot-matching homage, Bismuth’s 4K footage nestles into the BBC’s 16 mm: Scott and Ganzer’s late-model SUV crests unpaved roads and fades into Ruscha’s rock-laden pickup. But it’s too late. By now we’re in deep desert at the golden hour, enveloped by total cliché. A woodpecker jabs a Joshua tree, a little dry grass rustles in the bottom-right edge, and the cheesy music swells. It really is beautiful out there. It really is.

Travis Diehl

Where Is Rocky II? had its US premiere January 13 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Joshua Bonnetta and J. P. Sniadecki, El mar la mar, 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes.


THE DESERT IS A LIVING ENTITY, a beast that threatens to consume all trespassers. Many who attempt to cross it on the journey from Mexico to the United States fail, leaving a trail of corpses—if the victims don’t disappear altogether. El mar la mar, one of the few highlights so far of the Sixty-Seventh Berlin International Film Festival, takes us beyond rhetoric and to the place itself: that vast, shadowless landscape littered with the detritus of those who have braved its hostile climes.

El mar la mar was made by J. P. Sniadecki, who, together with Joshua Bonnetta (who also has a desert-themed installation, LAGO, in this year’s Berlinale), is doing more than just about any other young contemporary filmmaker to reconceive the documentary. The project is collaborative on every level: Sniadecki and Bonnetta worked together on the audio—a haunting collage of borderland soundscapes and interviews with inhabitants and migrants—and the wandering visuals. Captured on 16 mm, the grainy images project a distant past, yet the living testimonies of those who have witnessed the death and desperation—their voices often isolated in the resounding darkness of a black screen—demonstrate how burningly present the subject is. Ultimately, it is the cruel topography that emerges as the film’s protagonist. As one of the interviewees comments, “It’s amazing to see how everything out here has evolved to survive this environment. Everything out here can kill you: animals, plants, the sun. Even the insects are poisonous. Everything has its own built-in defense mechanism.”

The violence hinted at in El mar la mar is explored full-force in La liberdad del diablo (Devil’s Freedom), Everardo González’s collection of interviews with survivors and witnesses of the carnage generated by Mexico’s drug cartels, military, and police—as well as with some of the perpetrators themselves. All the interviewees wear the same flesh-colored mask to conceal their features as a protective measure against the very real threat of retaliation.

“Americans love their country,” noted the late Charles Bowden, America’s foremost chronicler of the past decade’s chaos on the Mexican border. “But they can’t seem to stand it unless they’re stoned out of their minds.” The violence, depicted through the words of those who have experienced it firsthand, can be attributed not only to the United States’ ravenous desire for drugs produced in Mexico but also to NAFTA, which has decimated the lives of Mexican factory workers and small farmers who can no longer make a decent living, producing a culture of poverty that has, in turn, engineered a generation ripe for recruitment by drug cartels. Trump’s idiotic rhetoric about the wall serves no higher purpose than to deny the US’s responsibility for the violence that has destroyed so many Mexican lives.

This week also saw the premiere of Tania Libre, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s record of Cuban dissident artist Tania Bruguera’s conversations with trauma specialist Dr. Frank Ochberg in his New York office, filmed shortly after her passport was returned following her detention and subsequent interrogation by Cuban state security forces.

For Bruguera fans who are already in on the backstory, the film’s most revealing moment is when Ochberg prompts Bruguera to talk about her father, who, it turns out, once occupied a prominent position in Fidel Castro’s government. But good documentary doesn’t rest merely on compelling subject matter. As Sniadecki knows, it’s how the medium is advanced in the process of conveying that subject. Unfortunately, Tania Libre might pass in a white-cube setting, but less so in the context of an international film festival. Its flaws in editing and direction would be easier to overlook were this year’s Berlinale not plagued with technical, organizational, and programming blunders. The best part of the screening was the Q&A, for which, thankfully, the fiercely intelligent Bruguera was present to counterbalance the embarrassingly disengaged festival moderator, whose comical struggle to put together a question actually at one point provoked laughter from the audience.

This would be unremarkable were it not symptomatic of so much of the moderation. Add to that a deep display of incompetence—at the premiere screening of Jang Woo-jin’s Autumn, Autumn, for which the entire crew traveled to Berlin from Seoul, a broken speaker distorted the sound throughout the film to the point of distraction—and a troubling picture begins to emerge. Berlin is already behind Cannes and Venice in terms of prominence, but unless the next Berlin International Film Festival receives an infusion of new blood, the “international” in its title might no longer refer to its audience.

Travis Jeppesen

The Sixty-Seventh International Filmfestspiele Berlin runs February 9 through 19.

Kedi Porn

02.10.17

Ceyda Torun, Kedi, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 79 minutes. Bengü.


If Make America Kittens—the Chrome extension that instantly replaces Donald Trump’s face with images of adorable cats—no longer blots out the horror, try Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s celebration of the felines of Istanbul and the humans who nurture them, or at the very least appreciate living among them. Never cute, this documentary about the interspecies bonding that defines daily life in Istanbul’s old town is as resourceful, agile, and scruffily seductive as its seven feline stars and supporting cast of hundreds.

Torun, who grew up in the city, says that she would not be the person she is today were it not for the street cats who were her childhood friends. I feel similarly about seeing Bambi (1942) at an impressionable age, although Disney’s nightmare vision of hunters and forest fires left me as bereft and terrified as the animals on the screen, despite the happy ending. (David Cronenberg named Bambi the most influential film in his life.) When I moved to SoHo in the early 1970s, there were more cats than humans residing in the industrial neighborhood, lounging against storefront windows, slipping through holes in loading platforms to sleep in warm basements, or huddling under cars in parking lots. For eight years, I fed cats all along Wooster Street, took in nine of them, and found homes for others, and I still weep for the three whose lives I probably made worse in trying to rescue them. Then there was gentrification, and seemingly overnight, the cats and most of their caregivers were gone.

To reassure anyone who right now can’t deal with any more pain, nothing bad happens to any of Kedi’s feline or human creatures. (Well, there’s one tiny comatose kitten.) It’s not that their future is assured. Implicit in the aerial shots that wordlessly depict the extent of the city’s modernization is the threat of the loss of habitat. Who knows how much of the picturesque Bosporus Harbor neighborhood, with its sprawling outdoor markets and centuries-old houses whose windows are always open and roofs easy to scale, still exists. Throughout the film, people worry about what will happen to the cats when they lose their homes and shops. Sitting next to a box of newborn kittens and a pair of adult cats curled up together, a woman, who has heard that her shop will soon be razed to make way for a road, confides that she is more concerned about the cats than herself and her neighbors. “If we have to leave, they’ll have no one.”

In Kedi, Torun captures what remains of her childhood paradise, creating a remembrance of and a model for a generous and humane way of life. (The film also must have been shot before the 2016 failed military coup.) Charlie Wuppermann’s alert, sinuous handheld camerawork is a major asset, as is the subtly emotive score by Kira Fontana. But if Kedi never feels like a memory piece, it is because cats always live in the present moment. That’s why one man says they are better for him than his worry beads: “A cat curled up at your feet is life smiling at you.”

What these Istanbulites value in the cats that adopt them is their independence. And that they have not been civilized of their instincts. Alley Cat Allies and other spay/neuter/release groups will have problems with Kedi. The Istanbul cats are doted on for being good mothers and fierce, territorial boyfriends. The same people who cook up twenty pounds of chicken a day and distribute kibble and water to outdoor feeding stations also run tabs at every neighborhood vet. But spay/neuter is never mentioned, although a woman notes that cats lose their catlike nature when they live inside. It’s a compromise, imposed by humans on cats, that she seems to know firsthand.

Few of those who locate the soul of the city in its cat population would endorse such a compromise. As much as the cat guardians of Istanbul anthropomorphize the felines they nurture, they are in love with their otherness. “Being friends with cats is what I imagine it would be like with aliens,” says the proprietor of a lovely clothing store where cats wander in and out more often than customers. “You open a different line of communication.”

Amy Taubin

Kedi plays through February 16 at the Metrograph in New York.

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.

Amy Taubin

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).