When “The Commons,” a film about a Confederate statue, was shown during the True/False Film Fest over the weekend, it caused a lot of off-screen action.
The film was met with student backlash after ethical questions surfaced about the producers’ journalistic process. The protesters claimed the film did not accurately portray the activists who led a movement to remove the statue.
The documentary brought to light the student-led movement to remove the statue and the countermovement to preserve it at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The statue, called “Silent Sam,” is a bronze representation of a Confederate soldier. It was given to the university in 1909 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
After Sunday’s showing of “The Commons,” Courtney Staton, an activist and documentary filmmaker from North Carolina, was brought to the stage at Jesse Auditorium to confront the producers. She read a statement that accused filmmakers Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky* of leaving out important details, conversations and actions.
The activists were also upset that they were filmed without permission, that the filmmakers were outsiders and that the film festival condoned these practices by showing the film. * But if a film is created with an outside perspective, the activists ask that it be made ethically and conscientiously.
“By filming us without our consent you contribute to the violent history of state surveillance and to the continued marginalization of Black people by the documentary field and people of color,” a statement from the group said. “You contribute to the traumatic legacy of white people ‘studying’ us for science and their own gains. Your art, like the University of North Carolina, was built on our backs. And to this we say: Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”
True/False released a statement Monday that expressed the festival’s commitment to elevate films that promote robust debates, "including ones of the ethics of representation."
"We support the screening of 'The Commons' at this year’s festival," the statement read. "These unjust power dynamics around race, privilege, access, and representation are the foundational questions of storytelling and are ingrained in documentary history since its beginning."
"These questions are large and knotty, and exactly the ones we need to address personally, organizationally, and in the systems that frame and govern our communities," the statement continued.
One of the movement’s organizers, Michelle Brown, said in an interview with the Columbia Missourian that the producers were outsiders who could not fully understand the key perspectives of the activists.
"Unless you’re having conversations with the people involved, the only thing that you can do is make assumptions," Brown said.
It’s not wrong to make assumptions, she said, but a film should not be based on them.
"You should be presenting it in the most authentic way possible," she said. "You should be telling, as close as possible, the truth."
Another grievance was filming the movement without first getting permission from each participant. While Brown recognized that it is legal in North Carolina to film people in public spaces without their consent, the student protest group viewed the practice as unjust.
"I actually only found out today that a very personal story was shared in that film about me and my family," she said.
The students have created their own film, called "Silence Sam," about the movement. They have suggested that producers stop showing their film or show the students’ film alongside "The Commons" as a way to combat lapses in the truth.
"If they continue to show this film without edits, we ask that they also show our film because our film shows the full story," Brown said. "It also shows that this movement was a student-led movement but not in the way they shared and belittled our student film."
Brown and the other protesters said they hope that by spreading awareness of their perceived injustices, they are promoting ethical journalism.
"That doesn’t mean we have to like the film that was produced, but we should be able to look at it and say that it is an authentic representation of the work that we put in," Brown said.