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“False Optimism is as Destructive as Pessimism”: Travis Wilkerson on His Essay Film About Racism, Family Legacy and the American South, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Travis Wilkerson

Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? — set to hit home video on September 18 — is the director’s latest essayistic foray into the political landscape of America. Often focused on buried histories of social movements, here Wilkerson hones in on race and its legacy within his own family and the American South. It is a film about complicity, about being born into and perpetuating power, about the fabric of the American South and the way its own buried history is not just emblematic of the region’s sordid past but of the entire country’s.

As in his groundbreaking 2003 feature An Injury to One, Wilkerson’s doomed quest in Gun to uncover untraceable facts about the victim of a decades-old crime — that of his great-grandfather S.E. Branch’s unpunished murder of a black man in Dothan, Alabama in the 1940s — functions as not only subject matter but theme: Family-shattering crimes have been institutionally ignored, evidence and information purposefully obfuscated or scrapped altogether due to any number of reasons, but often due to mere indifference to violence inflicted upon the oppressed. Unlike An Injury to One, however, Wilkerson’s latest gets personal, implicating himself and melding ideas of the deeply introspective personal film with the political essay film in a way that is both bracingly direct and haunting. Sentiments are transmuted from the self to the family to a broader excoriation of whiteness: how he and his family have benefitted from the story’s initial miscarriage of justice, and how such an act can forge power dynamics that live through multiple generations, perhaps indefinitely.

Carrying around a book of William Christenberry’s photography of rural Alabama — a significant visual reference point for him — while shooting, Wilkerson was aware he was entering into a Southern literary and aesthetic tradition. In an interview with Filmmaker, he discusses his relationship to the South and how it affected his approach to the film and shaped some of his formal choices.

Filmmaker: What was your relationship with the South and with your Southern background growing up — was it a prevalent part of your life or not really?

Wilkerson: My mom really was negatively affected by her upbringing in the South and wanted to flee, so to speak…. She really wanted me to not grow up in the South, so she urged my father to find work, and he got a job working for a helicopter company in Colorado. They had only been in Colorado maybe a month when I was born, which tells you the sense of urgency they had to get me into a different environment. So, I grew up in Colorado, but when I was a kid, my mom was still a teenager so she was going back home a lot. The Southern upbringing definitely hovered over the family very powerfully. I grew up with Southern manners, hospitality and tastes in food, for better or worse. My perception was that [Southern culture] seemed odd. Each of my sets of grandparents had very different socioeconomic backgrounds, but the ones that were more middle class had a black maid and this kind of weird power relationship within the home that you were really aware of when you went there.

Filmmaker: Was the South something you were fascinated with as you got a little older, or did you come back to it after a long break from it?

Wilkerson: It’s a funny thing — for me, one of the paradoxes of the film is that I feel that it reinforces a certain narrative about the South, which I don’t think is an entirely accurate narrative but [one] I think is accurate to the story of the film. Through my young adult life, I wanted to be a novelist, and I was drawn to Southern writing overwhelmingly. The most significant writer to me in college was Barry Hannah, but I certainly was familiar with the tradition of Southern literature. The paradox was always: How can a place that is depicted as so backward and so undereducated and so ignorant produce the most eloquent uses of language over and over again within [the] English [language]? When I got into this project, it had been a long time since I’d gone down there. Going back to Alabama with a project in mind was a very weird and intense experience — a literal kind of Brechtian alienation effect of suddenly seeing things that I hadn’t really noticed before and looking [at them] with a clarity that I hadn’t had before.

Filmmaker: I’ve seen several reviews claim the movie has noir characteristics but not much discussion about the Southern Gothic. Specifically, the spectral and the grotesque are a big part of some of your images. There’s a moment when you say about your great-grandfather’s old grocery store, “Try and tell me that store isn’t haunted.” And then you show your own reflection in the mirror as if you’re an extension of what was haunting it. Were you consciously invoking the Southern Gothic tradition there?

Wilkerson: I’m very interested in inversions of the noir throughout U.S. society. The Southern Gothic is a very specific, important, powerful and relevant version, but I’m interested in other versions too. In some of my earlier work, I was really drawn to, for example, [Dashiell] Hammett, and his evocation of a different kind of Western, sort of industrial noir. When noir is done well, I think it’s rooted in an American tradition, and what is that American tradition reflecting? It’s reflecting something about a kind of crime at the epicenter of US culture and how people navigate that crime in a kind of peculiar way. I feel like [noir offers] a way to acknowledge things that lurk just below the surface. But certainly, I was very aware of Southern Gothic — I started with the idea that it seemed like it made sense for [Gun] to be a form of Southern Gothic, and that I should embrace that. But I also wanted the project to develop itself — I wanted it to fight back and resist. Then suddenly there I am in these little towns, like Abbeville, where it seems like social relations haven’t changed in 100 years. And there’s this sense of everyone watching you, paying attention to what you’re doing, and that there’s some sort of violence — something suppressed, ignored, neglected, rejected — underneath. Feeling that really powerfully, the idea got amplified as opposed to suppressed. I had the notion that [the film] might become something quite different but instead the actual lived experience of being down there and working on it just made [the Southern Gothic feeling] sort of like a natural evocation of what I was experiencing. Again, I feel like there is a nuance and complexity to the South that I did not capture. So often cinema or literature finds its way into the Southern Gothic as a way of describing the South, but then I think, “Is that a limitation of my own work?” — that I channeled it into the dominant form of discourse in some strange way, even though I’m also trying to fight with it.

Filmmaker: There have been a fairly large number of personal, introspective films about the South by white filmmakers grappling with family, guilt and complicity. Tonally you and Ross McElwee aren’t very similar, and formally your films are not really analogous to Margaret Brown’s Order of Myths, but I think there’s a connective tissue of self-analysis there in the context of regional history — specifically white supremacy — and family. To make a movie about the South and its history as a white person, do you think it’s almost essential to acknowledge your complicity in this history?

Wilkerson: I’ve been thinking about this a great deal. The turn towards the personal documentary that was represented by some of the films you mentioned — Ross McElwee was very much a part of that — has had a peculiar trajectory, right? I think they had a real power, and I was really influenced by a lot of those films, but I often felt like they had this weird tendency to reflect upon the personal in a way that became so absorbing that it’s hard to see beyond the personal. At this moment it seems like political power is unusually resistant to any form of self-reflection — unusually resistant to acknowledging the relationship of an individual to a larger social phenomenon. My notion about this was, how can I reproject this inward gaze outward in a meaningful way, to see things in a more critical way, a more useful way, and to identify patterns at the micro level, at the family level, that then are recapitulated at the macro level? I’m convinced that there is a method, a strategy, into the personal documentary [where it] doesn’t become a form of narcissism and in fact it becomes that opposite. It becomes a way of acknowledging the relationship to that power in a way so as to erode that power, to attack that power, to negate that power, to undermine that power as opposed to reinforcing it over and over again. And if I were to do it in a more distanced way where I didn’t so directly acknowledge myself, would that actually be undermining narcissism, or [would it be] paradoxically reinforcing it by denying my relationship to the material in a dishonest way? At that point it seemed like, well, this is the story. The story is me attempting to do this as some kind of weird gesture that’s desperately hoping this could be recapitulated on a sort of broad level as a kind of social impulse.

Filmmaker: You also frame this complicity as generational, and I mentioned that shot of you being the ghost that haunts the grocery store. And I was wondering if, based on that, you see yourself as an extension of S.E. Branch in any way beyond lineage?

Wilkerson: You’re asking a question that I will wrestle with probably the rest of my life. To me, it would be completely dishonest to suggest that he’s gone from who I am, for so many different reasons. For example, the power that he wielded and his ability to get away with those crimes — which therefore allowed a certain freedom in my family to develop itself in a normal way despite catastrophic violence that he had been perpetrating on others — allowed his children to raise their children and allowed me to be in the position that I am right now. So, like, the fact that I’m in that reflection with that camera, with that film, based on a grant that I got, is directly connected to him in a strange way… The whole origin of the film was very fraught for me… I was watching the Ferguson uprising, and I remember feeling this incredibly weird sense of, “Am I being rewarded because my relative was a despicable racist murderer? Is my family going to be more comfortable for the next year, directly related to this horrific act that destroyed another family?”

It’s something I’m still conflicted by. I still [ask], does the film represent the level of rupture that it needs to? Does it represent the level of leap that it needs to? Does it operate as a mechanism for me personally to ensure that I don’t engage in any of the acts that he would engage in? And I don’t mean racist violence. I mean, he was a bully, a thug, and he had a bad temper. But I wrestle with the existential things: How does he live in me? Are there any positive things that I can take out of that legacy, or is it only catastrophic things? I wrestle with those things a lot, and the film did not resolve them for me at all. Doing the performance had the opposite effect. Every time I finished it I felt a sense of shame; I felt a sense of humiliation; I felt a sense of despair. I don’t mean to say that in any way I was a victim of that, don’t get me wrong, but I’m saying I didn’t enjoy it. Finishing the film kind of allowed me to step away from that energy, because it got kind of dark.

Filmmaker: I mentioned there’s a way in which you show yourself as an extension of S.E. Branch, but you also compare him to Atticus Finch, which I think is an interesting decision. We’ve been talking about the public and the private, so could you view To Kill a Mockingbird as the exterior of white American liberalism and Go Set a Watchman as its murkier, unchecked interior?

Wilkerson: I totally agree with the way you just described it. I think To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful book, and I adore it, and it had a huge effect on me. But it is peculiar that at the end of the day, there’s something that is consoling about it. There’s something like, “Even if good doesn’t triumph it struggles to triumph.” There’s something very liberal about that view to me. I was wondering, what would S.E. Branch have thought of Mockingbird? I don’t know. He’s not the kind of man that I imagine would have read a novel, though I imagine he might have gone to see the movie. Would it have infuriated him or spoken to him? I mean, my mom loved it, but of course she had rejected that outlook. I guess, again, it’s something that I’m wrestling with so much in general about the South.

Optimism and pessimism are incredibly powerful forces in culture and narrative and power, and it’s interesting how that has emerged as a kind of set of values between competing political forces in the American landscape right now, right? Does someone see things as extremely apocalyptic and dark that need to be radically transformed, or as nearly there but [that] need to be improved? Issues of optimism and pessimism are issues I have never been able to resolve in my work in a way that I have found satisfying. I desperately wish to propose something in my work, and yet, in general, what I propose is an exceptionally dark analysis of existing events. I think that false optimism is as destructive as pessimism. I think it’s useless, actually. I also think that finding optimism from within reality is such a beautiful goal that I have not achieved, and that I wish my work to achieve. So, it’s one of the biggest gaps: How do I produce a film that can be sober, rigorous, serious, critical, but somehow leads people to a conclusion, that directs them in a way so that they can begin to think that possibilities exist. I don’t really think my work does that in general, and that’s just a massive limitation for it for me. People kinda know the world is fucked up, and they either want a way out of it, or a way to escape from it. I just think I don’t ever propose a way out, and that’s something that drives me crazy.

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