On Friday (March 23), CalArts alum Travis Wilkerson’s (Film/Video MFA 01) latest documentary, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? screens at CalArts’ Bijou theater. Described by the New York Times as a “scorching and rigorous essay on memory and accountability,” the documentary begins with the painful revelation that in 1946, Wilkerson’s great-grandfather murdered Bill Spann, a black man, in Alabama and got away with it.
The personal and political documentary is an investigation into Wilkerson’s family history and how it connects to more public racial injustices. One of the initial catalysts for his project was the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Wilkerson’s statement that accompanied the 2017 New York Film Festival screenings:
It’s a strange sensation when my work is included in significant forums. I make very modest films. I really regard myself as nearer to an amateur filmmaker. As such, as the origins of the word suggest, I’m offering a version of my love to the films I make. I’m also offering the second most sacred thing we can offer: my labor.
This time I offered my love and my labor to a film that I wished somehow to be corrective. A film about the worst of my family.
I didn’t do this simply to be provocative or masochistic even, but rather because the only thing I believed I might be able to offer the Spann family, and to the community in which he lived, whether intact or destroyed – the sincerest acknowledgment I could that what SE Branch did was wrong, part of a long history of abusive behavior towards those in positions of lesser power than he. In Alabama, in the 1940’s, this meant he directed his abuse and violence against black people first and foremost, but also against women of all races. I discovered how deeply interconnected these specific forms of oppression were.
It seems to me pretty clear that if you can’t take meaningful account of oppression if you can’t name and confront it; if you can’t make your position on it clear, you allow it to go on. This is as true for a country as it is for a family. I’ve long believed that US society hasn’t been honest about itself, its abuses, its militarism. And I’m also convinced the present moment we find ourselves in is a result of that failure.
But everything begins in the family. And so I tried to deal with mine.
Before he completed the documentary, Wilkerson presented his project as a live performance, which premiered in 2017, at Sundance film festival. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? received funding from Creative Capital is 2015. The film has been nominated for best documentary at the 2017 Denver Film Festival and best film at the Locarno Film Festival.
Wilkerson’s films are politically charged: His best known work is An Injury to One (2002), which focuses on the lynching of a union organizer in Montana. It was named one of the best avant-garde films of the decade by Film Comment. His latest fiction feature, Machine Gun or Typewriter? premiered at Locarno 2015 and was awarded Best International Feature at DokuFest (Kosovo).
An interview with Wilkerson in Hyperallergic: A Filmmaker Investigates the Racially Charged Murder His Great-Grandfather Committed.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? by Travis Wilkerson
Friday, March 23, 4:15 pm