As Travis Wilkerson notes in “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun,” his grandfather Arthur was a bit of a film buff, an extension of his general interest in the latest technology. He worked in television, he got quite interested in computers towards the end of his life just as they were being born, and he became quite interested in recording equipment, using it to lay down tracks of his own Christian music as well as documenting the family’s lighthearted chats.
“What’s fascinating to think about is I’m might be working with a laptop, but it’s definitely a new iteration of similar impulses,” says Wilkerson, who drew on the home movies Arthur shot as part of the basis of his latest cinematic work. “What we take and what we don’t take from our relatives is a very funny question — who gets to define who we are? And who gets to define what our outlook is?”
While Arthur’s home movies present a vision of 1940s domesticity that you’ve likely seen before — images that have taken on a literal rose-colored tint as the film has turned copper, projecting the memory of a quiet yet dignified existence in relative prosperity that would seem to be the embodiment of the American Dream, Wilkerson became interested in 14 seconds of fleeting footage within them of his great grandfather S.E. Branch, who he came to find out was responsible for the murder of an African-American man named Bill Spann. It wasn’t just the surprise of learning of Branch’s role in the murder of Spann at a liquor store in Dothan, Alabama where such crimes could be committed without consequence, or his history as a Ku Klux Klan that was striking to the filmmaker and outspoken activist for civil rights, among other causes, but for the way the fleeting footage contained so many unspoken narratives about the past.
For Wilkerson personally, Branch’s presence brought a subject that had been rarely discussed within his own family into sharp relief, while the very fact that there was historical documentation, let alone the kind that engender a fondness for the times, was at odds with the fact that Spann’s history had essentially been erased with his death, buried in an unmarked grave with few if any records to show that he had ever spent time on this earth. It is the filmmaker’s mission to reconcile these dichotomies and come to terms with this shameful moment in his family’s legacy that led to “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun,” an immersive investigation that Wilkerson felt compelled to perform live at a handful of festivals last year before reworking it into a more accessible single-channel version that will begin its theatrical run at the Film Forum in New York this week.
In both forms, the film is electrifying in how Wilkerson pieces together a mosaic of the home movies his grandfather shot, contemporary footage he collected from revisiting the scene of the crime in the Deep South and necessary digressions into the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s and the continuum of racism that not only resulted in the death of Spann, but the future murders of those such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The filmmaker leaves nothing unquestioned, least of all himself in grappling with the kind of privilege that Spann never had, and while his considerable skill yields an engrossing experience for audiences, it’s his openness about his family’s past that brings the film so close to home. Wilkerson was no less candid when we spoke recently before the film’s long-awaited theatrical run, reflecting on everything from the demands of telling such a deeply personal and painful history live and ultimately adapting it for a more traditional screen experience to the reaction to the project within his family and the conversations the film has started everywhere it’s played.
What did you learn from performing this live before turning it into a film?
I was initially drawn to it because I felt that the initial revelation of the story needed to take place with the vulnerability and intimacy of the performance. It needed to be a direct confessional in the physical space with another person in the room where you could feel the breath and the rhythm of the energy. It’s funny because I’ve wrestled with this question a lot. There’s a way in which the live performance makes me more vulnerable, but it actually makes the audience more vulnerable as well in that when somebody tells you something face to face, it has a different charge than speaking to them on the phone or via a film or whatever it might be where the filmmaker can also hide, to some extent. So I wanted it to have this vulnerability or this humility to it that was tricky to figure it out.
What I learned from the performance was a lot — the timing, the rhythm, the breath. I also learned to a sense what is a difficult moment for them, what makes them uncomfortable, and what makes you uncomfortable in their presence. At True/False, I had a couple of funny experiences — there was a performance where someone stood up and made a kind of big gesture of disgust. He walked up to the stage, he made a big sound, stormed off and then at night, he proceeded to send me a series of aggressive and challenging e-mails in which he accused me of being a hateful person and full of racism towards white people. He blamed me for the election of Donald Trump. And certainly direct sense of confrontation is somewhat absent from the single channel work and I think it unsettles people in both good ways and bad ways more powerfully. But [doing the live performance] definitely taught me more what the heart of the piece was.
I tend to make concise films, and it still for me is a fairly long film, but I realized there were areas that were redundant and it was mostly about [preserving] that emotional directness. I found that a very interesting way to work and I certainly hope that I’m able to do a similar version with subsequent works because there is something about those initial public sharings of things that is very powerful. Honestly, I wish I could only do the film as a performance, not because I don’t like the film as a single-channel work, but I just think it has a very specific charge to it. It was just impractical and also exhausting for me. One thing I feel so powerfully about was that I never wanted to deliver a line to elicit a specific response that I had reached a point of comfort with delivery, so I always had that idea that the moment that I’m expressing an emotional feeling through performance, but I’m not feeling it internally is the moment that I can never do it again. And I never quite got to that point, thank goodness, but I felt nudging towards it, so the challenge of the film was how to make that singular filmic version have those qualities that I sought to have in the performance.
There are certain qualities that the piece has that have been carried over that likely were a result of practical considerations of performing live as much as creative choices, such as the moments where the screen goes dark with just your voiceover – when performed live, it could allow you to process things on your computer, though dramatically those moments are devastating. Were there limitations of the live form that became exciting possibilities when putting this to film?
Yeah, absolutely. I was very conscious of that from when I first got into this that I had to be willing to accept absence and gaps and, as you say, [moments of] full blackness of the screen longer than I normally would be willing to accept because they were such a part of the narrative — the notion of erasure and destruction, to the extent that I could figure it out, of an entire family and a whole people. And I’m really interested in the ways in which absence actually reflects presence. The example I often use is I live up in upstate New York and I’m surrounded by things that are named after versions of indigenous languages that would’ve been first. Yet obviously they’ve been perverted and changed in different ways and the people who spoke those words and for whom those words had meaning are all gone. They were all pushed further west and the language was supposedly exterminated, so that’s the elimination of the language is actually a really articulate expression of power and abuse, and that absence becomes a better articulation of presence to me.
I thought this film is very much about absence and about destruction as much as presence — what we can represent as well as what we can’t, and I’m always somewhat comfortable with that in my work because I’m always interested in marginalized and suppressed histories. Because this was so personal and so specific, we had home movies from my family, but so little information from this other family, and those gaps seemed more radical to me and more important and more central to the structure of the film. So you’re always in this moment where you’re [thinking], “Is that blackness too long? Is it redundant? Is it kind of a shorthand that’s not fair? Or is it something profound that is expressing something deeper?” And that was what I was striving for.
Obviously Bill Spann isn’t around to tell his story, and you’re clearly aware of the issue of placing yourself at the center of the narrative when you introduce the film by saying “This isn’t the story of a white savior,” so was it difficult to overcome knowing that you had to be central to the structure of this by necessity?
What’s happened over time is that as I’ve tried to delve into my work at a deeper level, it has seemed to be more important to place myself somehow within the context of the discourse and within the context of the frame, so although it might be obvious with this story because it’s family, it’s something that I really wrestle with a lot, which is if one gazes inward to avoid the gaze of the outward, it’s a very destructive force. But I think if you gaze outward as a way to gain awareness of the outside, by looking inward to your family, to your personal history, to the history of your relatives, of your people, and of your country as a way of making a political commentary about what’s happening in a larger sense, I think it’s essential and it increasingly seemed to me in my own practice that I couldn’t evade that question any more.
And I despise [seeing] myself onscreen. There’s no getting around that. I don’t like having my picture taken. I have a teenage daughter that wants to Snapchat me all the time and I’m constantly grumbling about it. I don’t like my own visage, so I do it despite those feelings because I think it’s so important to make these larger points. There’s a scene in the film in which my sister’s boyfriend who’s a journalist for Reuters captured me chanting at a Trayvon Martin demonstration and every time I see that scene, I hate the way I look and sound, I hate the hat I’m wearing. I hate the fact that I need a haircut. Everything about it makes me uncomfortable and over and over again, I would contemplate, “Well, am I going to take that out?” But somehow I had to leave it in in order to establish that I was physically present, that I was participating, but also to establish my own discomfort and vulnerability.
There’s also this funny thing about that particular moment, which is that I think I sound shrill, and there’s something about an intent to establish maybe some kindred relationship to the vicious harshness of my own relatives and then the way in which I’m expressing opposition to that kind of thinking, but through a means that almost seems also shrill. So for all those reasons, I kept it in, but it’s definitely not something I wanted to keep in. [laughs] Being onstage is the same thing. It’s a funny conversation my mom and I will have [where] she’ll say, “Oh, it must be so wonderful to be in front of all those people” and to me, it’s a means to an end. When I’m doing the live performance, I wish I could do it from backstage. I don’t take pleasure from any of that, but it’s so important to the basic structure of the whole piece that I do make myself present, either in the film version or in the performance version and the funny thing is the film doesn’t reveal too terribly much about me personally.
Since it doesn’t reveal all that much about you, I did want to ask – was this the first time you were discussing these events with your family, even in private?
The chronology [of events that’s in the film] is actually quite accurate. I’m a storyteller, so I like to think about how to tell stories well, but this is an example of a piece where it felt very important for me to have accuracy, verisimilitude and truth and not to digress from those things as much as I might. As I was developing the idea, I reached out to my mom and we would have conversations on the phone. When I went down to Alabama to do the filming she and my father, who had not yet passed away, were there when I first arrived and in fact, we all stayed at the same hotel together. But in terms of that actual conversation with my mom and with [my sister] Jill, the things we talked about in that conversation were actually [for the first time] in that sit-down. There was a strange way in which there was a certain limit as to how far we would go outside of the context of that. What surprised me about that conversation was knowing how ardently my mother and Jill, although not the elder sister Jean, feel about these things similar to how I do, but once the camera came on, I could feel how much apprehension and caution and reserve they had. I say that in the South, the division between public and private is a bigger gap than I feel than it is in the North. And [their reticence] wasn’t because it contradicted their value system [or] they were afraid of offending anyone. It was something else and I’ve never quite figured out precisely what it was. At some level at that moment, I think it became more challenging for them go against the family, so to speak.
Which is something that I also found challenging. I know that it seems like I just forged ahead, but when I got the letter from Jean, the eldest sister, and she specifically said that my grandparents, the daughter and son-in-law of S.E. Branch, would’ve been ashamed of what I was doing, I didn’t work on the film for a week because as much as I didn’t agree with them about everything, they were always tender and loving grandparents to me. When I was confronted with this idea that I was embarrassing them, and obviously, they both passed away, and that I would be hurting them, it really, really rattled me. You think I would’ve thought about that before that moment, but it really hit me with a different weight when that accusation came from so close within the family from another person I had known for a long time and at one time considered myself quite close to. I was in Alabama at the time and I was just very paralyzed by it. I ended up talking to my mom on the phone and she just said, “That’s not true and here’s why” and and it calmed me down back to the point where I could get back to the work of the film.
I have no illusions that I can leave everything behind as part of such a dark legacy, but I think that we can to some extent define ourselves differently along our own lines. I know my mom did that. She grew up in Alabama. Her high school was forcibly desegregated and the Klan marched [outside]. Her lesson from all of this was that she wanted her children to be born and to be raised outside of that kind of world where those attitudes didn’t predominate, which is why I was born in Colorado. She moved up there when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with me because she didn’t want to be born in Alabama. So that’s not only choosing her own future, but also to some extent a different future for her kids. And all of us are very different. I have a younger sister and a younger brother and we’re all quite different. Some of us have different attitudes towards spirituality or towards religion, but what we all have in common that is absolutely apparent to anyone around us is we deeply, deeply care about issues around race and opposition to racism and we’re also really concerned about war. My father was a combat pilot in the Vietnam War, so [between] my mom growing up in apartheid Alabama while my father was returning from a war that he thought was wrong are the two things that have shaped the consciousness of all three of us.
You’re able to bring in a considerable amount of African-American history through your encounter in the film with Ed Vaughn, who keeps an impressive archive from his storied political career in his home. Did you know walking into his house how you might ultimately present it onscreen?
When I very first encountered him, I was trying to find resources within that region that would have some relevance to what I was undertaking and I found a local television story online about him running this museum. I knew very little about him at that point, but I thought, “Well, there must be some imagery within that museum that would be of interest or value.” He’s a fairly easy person to reach and even in the first phone conversation, I realized I had encountered a truly special, singular human being with a remarkable history. And I only scratched the surface of it, trust me. [laughs] His presence was even twice as long as it is [in initial cuts], and it’s substantial in the current film, and I realized I really just need to make a film about Ed Vaughn.
Here’s a man who was active in the civil rights movement from the very beginning — in fact, he was active in it before it became a designation — and then becomes connected to all of the strongest tendencies of this movement and its extraordinary achievements. Then he moves up to Michigan and becomes a legislator, working with all of these people who are connected to the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, which was this radical counter-labor movement that was in some of the plants there in the Detroit area. I had known them in other contexts and all of a sudden, these circles start collapsing in on each other in a very fascinating way. He’s one of the main leaders of the Democratic Party in the state of Alabama [now], so he was deeply connected with the get out the vote effort that allowed Doug Jones to win that election just a few weeks ago, and he’s remained at the epicenter of things happening in the world the whole time.
I’m just so grateful to be able to spend time with a person like that. He was just very generous with me and with his ideas. I interview a lot of different people in a lot of different contexts and sometimes people who have that kind of history are very measured. You really sense that they’re pausing and really thinking about what they’re [saying and how it will impact their legacy]. You never feel that way with Ed Vaughn. He just tells you what he thinks and what he thinks is amazing. [As I mentioned in this] place where people are reluctant to speak, Ed Vaughn has no problem with it. We would meet at the mall and have lunch and he would just be speaking at full volume in ways that were challenging and irritating everyone around us with no regard for it at all, just complete freedom. I was struck at his bravery, his audacity and his sense of humor. He always cracks me up, so as I finally reached the point where I’m like, “Can I come and film in the museum?” He said, “Well, I’m in the process of closing it down. My mom’s passed away and this is her old house and I think we’re going to box it up and move on.” So I said, “Please let me get in there and film a little bit.” So that’s how I got in there. And there’s something about the way in which it’s in the process of being taken down that emphasized the fragility and significance of it.
That’s in a way the heart and soul of the film because it gives you this whole counternarrative that really helps to explain a lot about the dynamics that was unfolding at that moment and why there was this awareness amongst the racist power structure in Alabama that the fight back was beginning. It was going to get more significant in the 1950s, but it was in the 1940s and [that conversation] led me into a lot of the stuff that was connected to Rosa Parks. [which] creates another counternarrative. It’s also an expression of how patriarchial and misogynistic even the history of the civil rights movement is where you have this figure who’s this immense, fearless, extraordinary figure who’s already extremely active in the early 1940s, yet the narrative we hear about her is something quite different from that.
Traveling around the country with the film, have you actually experienced a counternarrative of your own, just seeing how people feel about race versus how it’s portrayed as a national issue?
It’s funny because although this particular story is very singular for me, the broader experience is not so much. What I mean by that is that I frequently like delving into a subject where there might be some certain kind of discourse already that predominates and then often I’m challenging that accepted discourse in some crucial way and get below the surface. And what I find is that any time you look underneath anything, you find something. [laughs] It’s not because I just have this hot streak where I’m uncovering these things and they end up having this broader significance. It’s reflective of a dynamic societywide, which again is part of the reason I’m interested in shining a light into the closets within my own family as a way of trying to express a broader truth.
I made a bunch of films about where I grew up in Montana and what was interesting was that every time I would show these films, I was stunned to discover that no matter where in the world I would be, someone would come up and say, “Oh, you know, my grandfather used to live in Butte” to the point where it just became absurd. I could be in Slovenia, I could be in the Phillippines. It didn’t matter. Somehow people would say, “Oh, you know, your film reminded me of something that relates to it and it’s been very similar, but [with “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun”], it’s darker, which is how many times people say, “Oh, it turns out that my grandfather or my uncle or my cousin had this connection to the Klan or was involved in this violence.” The first couple times, it’s interesting and then it happens so much that you begin to realize, of course, it makes sense. You can’t have this broader level of violence and oppression in society without having a broad participation in it. Sometimes part of the discourse prevents us from acknowledging our own participation in it or the participation of our ancestors or the participation of our relatives.
What ends up happening is that conversation [where] people will say they have roots that they’re ashamed of — it’s going to [sound] counterintuitive — but for me, that’s a positive outlook about the project because when people begin to acknowledge those things, that’s the first step of moving forward into a different direction. Concealing it, mitigating it and diminishing it, these things don’t help us. We’re faced with a moment right now where our political leadership, and I know you know of whom I’m speaking, has no capacity for introspection whatsoever and it’s not that he is unique in that regard. But he’s an expression of that tendency and that tendency is a very destructive one to everyone. It prevents him from solving basic problems that he needs to solve in all sorts of different ways and it leads him into the chaos that we’re in right now. So I’m just convinced that this introspection is an important and essential aspect of a gesture to move forward.