Two Nonviolent Movements and Two Blues Masters
Interviewing filmmakers after viewing screening copies of documentary films to be presented this weekend at Woodstock Film Festival has one downside: You miss out on joining in group dialogue with the filmmakers and panelists following a live film screening.
All three of these gripping films pack a punch that bodes well for lively discussions with the people behind the cameras. All three are powerful, fully conceived and well executed portraits of life — then, now and into the future.
Get In The Way: The Journey of John Lewis
When filmmaker Kathleen Dowdey was living in Atlanta in the 1980s, she interviewed then-City Councilman John Lewis for a documentary about Atlanta Journal Constitution editor Ralph McGill. “Within the first 20 minutes of filming, the crew and I were all asking Lewis questions about his life. We were spellbound,” she recalls. “I swooped in on him and asked him if he would let us tell his story. I couldn’t believe no one else was expressing interest. He said, ‘sure’.”
Her film, Get In The Way: The Journey of John Lewis, highlights just four major stories from the iconic 12-term U.S. Congressman’s life, offering an inspirational, historical and relevant perspective on racism. Lewis was born in 1940 and Dowdey concentrates on his early years of evolution as an activist: segregated lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville; the Freedom Rides on buses in the Deep South; the 1963 March on Washington where he was the youngest speaker on the program; and his leadership on Bloody Sunday March 7, 1965 during the Selma to Montgomery march to advocate for voting rights for Blacks.
Lewis’ awakening to the effectiveness of using civil disobedience and nonviolent protest for the greater good occurred in 1955 when he first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. “I felt like he was speaking directly to me when he said, ‘you can do something’,” Lewis says in Get In The Way. By the 1960s, Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and he and many students used community outreach and nonviolent protest to oppose segregation and register African Americans to vote. He braved fire hoses, cattle prods and beatings while remaining absolutely nonviolent. This life-threatening — and formative — work eventually paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.
Now 76 years old, this son of Alabama sharecroppers is a revered civil rights legend who has been beaten and jailed more than 40 times over a lifetime of devotion to nonviolent challenges to injustice and discrimination. He has served the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia since first elected in 1986. Lewis’ tenacity is inspiring — and effective: Each year, for 15 years, he put a bill before Congress before it finally passed, authorizing support for the newly opened National Museum of African American History on the National Mall. This past June, he led a 26-hour Democratic sit-in on Capitol Hill to draw attention to gun violence and legislative lack of action on gun control laws: He said the action reminded him of his early days in the Civil Rights movement.
In starting to make the film, Dowdey’s first step was to secure funding to create an anchor for the project — film footage of a 1990 Lewis family reunion in Alabama. She says, “I knew we had something extraordinary when we were interviewing people who knew him as a child. His mother, a fiercely devoted Christian, was the source of his fire and (she ensured) the survival of his family. He was lit by her and inflamed ever since. She’s the underpinning for all he is.” Dowdey conducted 19 hours of interviews with Lewis in the 1990s and then the project went into hibernation until 2010: by then, she had secured additional funding and Lewis had gained national media attention after President Obama was elected.
“Congressman Lewis is certainly a very unusual man. I’m amazed at how quickly he can shake off set backs,” says Dowdey. “I’m sure he has some inner formula — he has a very devoted spiritual life — to get right back at it the next day. In life, you have more set backs than triumphs and I’d like to be better at that, frankly. We all get bogged down, but he’s got that gift. It was wonderful to be near him and observe. As a public persona, he’s very serious, especially when making speeches. But,” she adds, “he has a wicked sense of humor and, especially when he’s at home in Atlanta and around people who have known him a long time, he relaxes. His one-liners sparkle and make you do a double take, burst out laughing. He’s very, very funny.”
Following premiers in Atlanta and Washington, DC, as well as a few selected events in Los Angeles and Texas at museums and private screenings, the film comes to Woodstock, which will be, Dowdey says, “One of the big points.”
In panel discussions, Dowdey emphasizes the role of documentary filmmakers as activists and educators. “There are a lot of us who deal with social justice issues in different capacities. Many — Barbara Koppel comes to mind — use films to raise awareness. Michael Moore is a full-blown, on-camera activist. Me, I love being behind the camera,” she admits. “I’m never going to be a speaker at rallies, but people who are trying to make change happen, can show and use films [like Get In The Way] to energize activism.”
Many people who have been devoted to Lewis for years are now committed to help move the film to television broadcast. Dowdey’s purposeful decision to keep the film in non-theatrical release serves the broader aim of using Get In The Way as an educational and awareness building tool. “We’re looking for an underwriter to pay for a study guide and curriculum development to help teachers know how to present the film in the classrooms. For high school students, we want to meet the requirements of the core curriculum and do it well so it will have a long life.”
Get In The Way will be shown at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck on Friday at 4 p.m. and at Bearsville Theater on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. Kathleen Dowdey will participate in Q&A following the screenings.
Two Trains Runnin’
During Freedom Summer in 1964, two trios of young people embarked on separate quests to find County Blues masters Son House and Skip James, and Two Trains Runnin’ documents their parallel journeys into Mississippi. Running alongside the violence and volatility of the Civil Rights movement and the brutal murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, this film reveals the firm bedrock of cultural and political contributions that African Americans have made to our national arts landscape.
Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Sam Pollard, who won an Emmy for Eyes on the Prize II and has directed films on August Wilson, Marvin Gaye and Zora Neale Hurston, uses Common as narrator; animation to deftly substitute for non-existent footage during the search for the bluesmen; and original music by Gary Clark Jr. in his fascinating film. Archival film clips, interviews and contemporary performances with several Blues masters are the meat of the movie, including Buddy Guy, Lucinda Williams, Chris Thomas King, Valerie June and North Mississippi Allstars.
Two Trains Runnin’ will be shown at Rosendale Theatre on Saturday, October 15 at 1 p.m. and at Bearsville Theater on Sunday, October 16 at 5 p.m. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard will be on hand for Q&A.
Disturbing the Peace
As the world’s only bi-partisan, nonviolent activist group of enemy combatants working together during an ongoing armed conflict, Combatants for Peace is a compelling group of Palestinians and Israelis who are working together to promote human rights and peace for all.
The stories told in Disturbing the Peace are personal and hit you in both heart and mind. The most moving aspect of these stories is that they’re easy to relate to and make it easier to understand why it’s such hard work to find better ways to get along with each other.
A checkpoint guard taking a call about picking up his own child after work has a moment of epiphany when he turns away a man who seeks border entry with a carload of sick children who need medical attention. Throughout the film, military personnel and civilians find their own painful way to similarly ordinary moments of epiphany that lead them to each other in both desperation and determination. Things no longer work they way they are, and these brave souls finally turn to beacons like Congressman John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai to find ways to create conversations with each other — across borders, across prejudices, across history — and they start a peaceful movement. Their work began with sharing personal stories — using the South African Truth and Reconciliation process of confessing their actions so they can integrate them and move forward to create something different. This bravery shows us that even if you’re born into conflict and sworn to be enemies, you can challenge your fate.
Filmmakers Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young document this inspiring peace movement that seeks to end the bloodshed in the Middle East. Apkon, who first visited Israel in 1976 as a 14-year old arriving from Boston on the evening of the U.S. Bicentennial, returned often over the years, experiencing first-hand the growing violence and hatred. Since his initial meeting with the founders of Combatants for Peace, he has spent two years documenting their work in Israel and the West Bank, and feels the film is about people’s ability to transform, both individually and collectively.
“The reaction to Disturbing the Peace has been so gratifying, both here in the U.S. and perhaps even more importantly, in Israel and Palestine,” says Apkon. The film was well received when it premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and a week later in the West Bank on the separation wall itself. Audiences came from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, from Nablus and Tulkarm, and from many other places. “They sat together, under the stars and a full moon, and shared their narratives and envisioned the possibility of a different future. It was an extraordinary experience, and we are returning later this year for many more screenings throughout the region.”
Apkon wanted to address all the ways people find themselves stuck in their personal and collective narratives, and to help people — by seeing the actions of the Combatants for Peace — discover that there is another way. “Disturbing the Peace is not meant to be just a ‘feel good movie’ but to bring people to become more involved and more willing to ‘disturb their own peace’ and to stand up for what they believe, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. We do see that happening,” he says, adding that the film opens in theaters in New York City on November 11. “We are already excited about the kinds of conversations it is creating, and we also see the impact on the Combatants themselves. They are being seen and appreciated for their heroic transformation and nonviolent struggle to realize peace, security and freedom for both peoples.”
Disturbing the Peace will be shown at Rosendale Theatre on Friday at 6:30 pm. Q&A participants will be Director/Producer Stephen Apkon and Co-Producer Marcina Hale, and Combatants for Peace members Mohammed Owedah and Assaf Yacobovitz.