Charlottesville: Our Streets

Interview by Lucas Czarnecki
Issue 57 • November 2017 • Charlottesville

Sifting through the footage of a nationally-covered protest is no easy task, but these two documentary filmmakers want to pull the story from the chaos to help their community heal.

Above: Brian Wimer and Jackson Landers at Emancipation Park

The horrific events of August 12th still echo through the fabric of Charlottesville. Life moves on, yet there remains an uneasy tension in the air surrounding race, class, gender, and the other issues thrust into the spotlight three months ago. With so many national media outlets covering the story from an external viewpoint, it became difficult for the people of Charlottesville to get a clear sense of what actually happened. To help set the record straight, Charlottesville-based filmmaker Brian Wimer and journalist Jackson Landers teamed up to document the ground-level facts and present them from a local perspective. Their documentary, Charlottesville: Our Streets, will premiere this month at the Virginia Film Festival to share the true story of that grim weekend.

For many in Charlottesville, the decision to venture downtown at all during the protests was a difficult one, but Wimer was compelled by a sense of social responsibility. A prominent figure in the local arts community, Wimer described himself as “more a lover than a fighter.” He explained his decision to film that weekend, saying, “First-person, eye-witness testimony to events is incredibly critical. Too much of the media now is third-person.” Wimer had no real plan for how to use the footage, though, until Landers approached him about producing a documentary. The idea occurred to Landers, a nationally established journalist, the Monday after the twelfth as he reflected on the sheer quantity of cameras and smartphones he saw at the rally: “I bet there’s a pretty interesting documentary film hiding in a lot of people’s SD cards and hard drives.” Wimer and Landers started on the project that day, and since then, the two have worked 100-hour-weeks compiling footage, conducting interviews, and editing film in a crazed effort to make their seemingly impossible two-month deadline.

Striking the balance between producing objective journalism and a watchable film was not an issue for these two, who let the content drive their process. “We started by compiling this massive timeline with all the footage we collected,” Wimer explained. “There were often multiple angles of the same event, and these people had their own opinions about what they were filming. That adds to the story as well, because what they choose to aim their phone at is a decision. So we’re seeing not only through their eyes, but also through their choices.” In an effort to reconcile these various vantage points, Landers and Wimer conducted more than two dozen eye-witness interviews for the film. “If you weren’t there, we can’t reasonably include your perspective,” said Landers, explaining their goal of objectivity in the film. “We were fortunate in that our subject matter is already incredibly compelling. It’s not like we’re making a movie about the history of yarn. We don’t need to add or distort anything to make this watchable.”

While discussing their process, the filmmakers revealed how much they—even as eyewitnesses themselves—learned about the day’s events, citing numerous popular misconceptions debunked either in the film or in their research. These pieces of misinformation exist on both sides of the conflict. “There was a misconception about the driver of the burgundy minivan—people said it was dropped off just to be hit. It turns out the driver was under the vehicle,” Landers revealed. Wimer added that, “The Three Percenters were interesting to me. These were the heavily armed, camouflaged battalion group. There were rumors that these were white supremacists who were invading the city. It turns out they were peacekeepers and were really doing a lot of the work the police were there to do.” They explained how the national media and amateur journalists contributed to these misconceptions by taking photos out of context or plainly editing photos, sometimes even adding swastikas.

You hear people say, ‘The time for talk is over!’ But I think that’s the exact time we’re in right now.

Brian Wimer

The level of subjectivity surrounding the events has impacted Landers and Wimer beyond what they expected. “You can have 30,000 cameras pointed at the same thing and you still won’t know exactly what happened,” Landers confessed. “It makes me realize how little I know—even when I see something happen,” adding that he hasn’t taken a moment to let himself process the event emotionally. As a journalist, his job started immediately, but he hopes that after the premiere, he will be able to “sit and think about everything I’ve learned these few months.” Wimer, who handles a majority of the video editing, said that the process has been therapeutic. “To look at the event through so many different angles, through so many people’s eyes, allows you to experience it as a way bigger thing. It also reveals how much is just outside your viewpoint. But how often do you get to focus in and think about a 24-hour period non-stop for two months?”

Even though the film has brought some catharsis to its producers, they are cautious about who should view it. Since the documentary will premiere in downtown Charlottesville—mere blocks from the rally and within a stone’s throw of the vehicle attack—it could rip the scab off of physical and psychological wounds, most of which have not had enough time to heal. “If you were at the event, I don’t think you should watch it yet,” warned Landers. “I don’t think it’s time.”

With that in mind, Landers and Wimer agree on the goal for the film: they hope it is educational, but not didactic. They want the film to establish an accurate record of events without adding any editorial filter in order to foster intelligent dialogue among its viewers—even if, as Landers put it, the other’s views might be “completely appalling to us. We still need to recognize how and why these different views exist.” Wimer echoed this desire to avoid sloganistic tendencies. “You hear people say, ‘The time for talk is over!’ But I think that’s the exact time we’re in right now.” Three months isn’t long, but perhaps the time is right.

Charlottesville: Our Streets premieres at the Virginia Film Festival on Sunday, November 12 at The Paramount Theater. Tickets are $10, show starts at 4:30 PM. For a full schedule of festival events, visit virginiafilmfestival.org.

Photography by Tristan Williams

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