Over the coming months our column We Like Shorts, Shorts will play host to a series of pieces about the new short documentary series Field of Vision, hosted over at The Intercept and co-created by Laura Poitras, AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook.
Peace in the Valley – Matilda Surtees
“They said — so there’s this town, there’s this vote, and there’s this big Jesus on a hill… And we said OK,” director Michael Palmieri told The Intercept, crediting Field of Vision for giving he and co-director Donal Mosher a great deal of autonomy in how they chose to explore and depict the small town of Eureka Springs, which was grappling with the implications of a proposed ordinance granting more legal protections to the town’s LGBT citizens. This autonomy allowed Palmieri and Mosher to take an unusual tone for this sort of political documentary; simultaneously subjective – both directors are gay – but non-judgmental, Peace in the Valley leans into the strange society of Eureka Springs and gives a gently absurdist portrait of the town.
Skillful editing, paired with an intuitive but unobtrusive style of cinematography, helps the directors make the most of their fifteen minutes by effectively weaving together a complex picture of the different perspectives and interests that coalesce around the vote into either the ‘for’ or ‘against’ camps. The sequencing of their interview footage, shot in an observational rather than interventionist style, bounces us between moments that seem to have distilled each subject into a remarkably strong character or perspective: we move quickly from an awkward yet firm teen standing at a demonstration, repeating a rhetorical question about why ‘men’ should be allowed to use women’s bathrooms, to a man playing violin in front of an ‘against’ banner emblazoned with the image of a young white girl, and then two middle-aged blonde women wearily lamenting that the ‘against’ camp have made lies about little girls being molested into a primary issue for the vote.
Among the many quirks of the town, the “big Jesus on a hill” and the Great Passion Play are boons for Palmieri and Mosher. The first provides an easy visual motif for their exploration of human attempts at moral or spiritual fidelity; whether it be the Christian divine or a secular morality. The Great Passion Play is a re-enactment of Jesus’ life that claims the honour of “best attended outdoor drama in North America,” according to Randall Christy (CEO of the play company, and a major subject in the documentary). The Great Passion Play allows the directors to extend the theme of human interpretation into a longer metaphor for religion as another sort of social performativity. Palmieri and Mosher drive this point home in their final scenes, where – after cutting from an actor dressed as Jesus in a white satin robe being hoisted into divine ascension by stage wires – drag queens and camp-looking men spin in slow-motion across a dancefloor.
Although humour is laced throughout Peace in the Valley – and largely through the proponents and affiliates of the ‘against’ campaign – Palmieri and Mosher take care not to overplay it. It would be easy to outright mock some of their subjects, yet to do so would disrespect the willingness and sincerity with which these subjects have allowed the documentarians into their lives. Their deft arrangement of footage is done to encourage the viewer to recognise the comedy of certain moments, and from there Palmieri and Mosher do little more. They cut contrasts with the seriousness and certainties of religion and politics, yet without diminishing either. Their engagement with the absurd permeates Peace in the Valley to the very end, where it turns from playful to rather pessimistic: onscreen text at the conclusion informs the viewer that soon after the residents of Eureka Springs voted to uphold the ordinance, state legislation was passed that invalidated almost all of the civil protections for LGBT citizens regardless.
Concerned Student 1950 – Jaymes Durante
For a high-strung moment in late 2015, the University of Missouri, known informally as Mizzou, was the epicentre of racial tension and media scrutiny in the United States. A series of incidents on campus (swastikas in bathrooms, racist epithets, violent threats) incited a group of African-American students to form Concerned Student 1950 (named so after the date the first black student was accepted into Mizzou), demanding amongst its wider aims the deposition of university president Tim Wolfe, who had neglected his responsibility to respond substantively to the risks posed to black students. Concerned Student 1950 is a thirty-minute documentary by junior journalism students Kellan Marvin, Adam Dietrich and Varun Bajaj which chronicles the mechanics of this anti-racist movement. It is vital and concise, elevating and transcending student journalism to give us both a factual account of the process of campus activism and a robust emotional document of the protestors’ passion and vulnerability.
The filmmakers use the principles of Direct Cinema as their impulse, which is to say that it hinges (and succeeds) on both immediacy and objectivity. Despite their off-screen participation in the protests, Marvin, Dietrich and Bajaj are removed from on-screen proceedings; there’s no voice-over narration and we never see them. Their involvement is welded to their operation of the camera and their subsequent editing — filmmaker as cameraperson, selection as narration. The film’s human dimension develops from the filmmakers’ wide access and their emphasis on intimacy with the protestors. At the film’s central event, a protest at the Women’s Alumnae Leadership Group, they momentarily stray from the intense demonstration at hand and glide into a corridor, where black students are lined up against a wall in solidarity with their speakers, one of them in tears. Earlier, at a meeting, a man confesses to not feeling safe on campus, even though it’s “not masculine to say”. The intimate, detail-oriented approach — tears and insecurities alongside rage and celebration — lends weight to its impartial observance.
The events that the filmmakers have captured, or in some instances included from other sources (phone video and media clips), are remarkable: Wolfe telling black students that “systematic oppression is because you don’t believe you have the equal opportunity to succeed”; reporters barking “first amendment!” as they try to annex the protester’s demarcated safe space; protesters dancing and singing in celebration to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’; Professor Melissa Click asking for “muscle” to remove a reporter (a move she was later fired for); the Mizzou football team striking in solidarity; protest leader Jonathan Brown hobbling from a building on the fourth day of a hunger strike. These moments are undeniably powerful, but the film’s real gristle is in its rigorous documentation of the process of protest — the behind-the-scenes operations, where students spar with principles of identity and inclusion as they try to change a ‘student problem’ into an institutional one.
For all its rousing and inspiring, Concerned Student 1950 is also realism; it offers no resolutions to the problem of racism on campus, deigning to quietly observe in extraordinary detail. As the film winds to a close, the Concerned Students’ victory — Wolfe resigns, but not before imploring that “this is not the way change should come about” — is met with even greater violence: the signage for the university’s Black Cultural Center is spraypainted over, and threats to shoot black students appear on social media. Tensions aren’t resolved, they just ricochet from height to height. Protests cause outrage, success causes backlash, concessions incite further provocation. With each stride the movement makes, their stakes seem to rise, and a fuller picture of the violent racism facing black students (and indeed all black Americans) begins to emerge. In the film’s final scene, they’re united against violence in a spine-tingling display of unity and heightened fury, though more fearful than ever before. Concerned Student isn’t just further evidence that observational filmmaking can be more than just an anthropological tool; it’s a powerful testament to the dignity of protest — a partial snapshot of a moment in a movement.