Editor's note: It made its TV broadcast premiere on BET last night, and my Twitter feed was all abuzz about it, by those who apparently hadn't already seen it. Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to repost this comprehensive interview we did with the director of the film, Shola Lynch, handled by Zeinabu irene Davis, which is an absolute must read, if you missed it when it was originally published last April. Like I said it's quite thorough, so set aside time to read it, because it's a long, informative and entertaining read.
On March 27, I had the great opportunity to interview Shola Lynch about the groundbreaking premiere of her documentary feature, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. This release is the first time that an African American woman producer/director has had a documentary film in theatrical distribution. This is in addition to her break through documentary, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004) that was also one of the first documentaries by a Black woman to receive home video distribution on the video market. I wanted to conduct this interview to make people aware of this important historical event and to also ask questions of her as a fellow filmmaker. Erica Fontana transcribed the following interview.
Zeinabu Davis: Shola, I’m very proud of you, and very happy for you.
Shola Lynch: Thank you. I mean, you know how hard it is to tell these kinds of stories creatively. Even just to make them good. But then the business side is just as hard.
Zeinabu Davis: Yes, I totally understand and that’s what people don’t get. And they think, oh, it’s all so glamorous, and sometimes I have to stop from rolling my eyes - and it’s like, no really, it’s not. It’s ugly and it’s hard. [laughs]
Shola Lynch: Exactly, and distribution is just as much work. It’s just as much work as the making.
Zeinabu Davis: Uh-huh, girl tell me about it, I hear you!
Zeinabu Davis: Okay, let's start off - if you could tell us why you decided to become a filmmaker. Because the thing that’s intriguing to me about you is that you have a Masters degree in American history, from UC Riverside, and then you earned another Masters of Science degree from the School of Journalism at Columbia University. So how or why did you make did you make the transition from, journalism to documentary filmmaking?
Shola Lynch: It’s such a personal journey. I grew up in the ‘70s. Do you remember that album, the Marlo Thomas album, Free to Be You and Me?
Zeinabu Davis: Yes.
Shola Lynch: I loved that album and really believed that, so, you know, I grew up as an individual. I had a vague sense of history and my place in the world, but I was an individual. I ran track and went to the University of Texas on a track scholarship. All of a sudden, when you’re outside of your family space, you’re confronted with the world, and guess what? I was not allowed to be an individual. I was black and I was a woman - and I was a black woman. [laughs]. I went through that angry militant phase. But I realized that part of that anger was because I didn’t know who I was and where I came from. I didn’t know my history. I became fascinated with literature, philosophy and history - it fed me all of this information. I realized that part of it also is that we don’t read so much, so I thought, I’m going to be a curator. I’m going to bring history alive through stuff - through photographs, film and etc, and curate. I didn’t really know you could be an artist. I thought okay, I can do that - I have a master’s in American history and public history, resource management. But when I came out of graduate school, there were all these cuts in the arts. Newt Gingrich was leading the House, and I was having trouble finding a job, and somebody said to me, well, have you ever thought about documentary filmmaking? And I was like, no. All my filmmaking friends were such geeks. They were like, yeah, you should frame it that way, so you could do this shot? I’m like, ah, no, what? I was like, no. But I landed a job by accident with Florentine Films, which is Ken Burns’ company.
Zeinabu Davis: Right, so your academic background helped you.
Shola Lynch: Yeah. It was precisely because I knew how to research, and this was the beginning of the Internet. Folks were thinking that they could do a quick search and that was research. Well, no, I knew how to dig into facts. I worked on the Frank Lloyd Wright film and then the Jazz series, and I fell in love with storytelling on film. The process and the impact on audiences amazed me. I said, ah, I want to see if I can do this. I want to see if I can direct. Chisholm ’72 is the first film that I directed.
Zeinabu Davis: Go on girl!
Shola Lynch: And then you get hooked. You know what I mean?
Zeinabu Davis: Yes, I know too well.
Shola Lynch: I found that then films lead people to want to read. They lead people to want to know more. But we have to, we have to stop, we have to stop criticizing folks for not knowing stuff and make the information accessible. And why not in the form of the griot, you know what I mean? We have all this great technology. We used to tell stories about each other. We used to know our whole history, culture, etc, through stories. We don’t have time for that anymore. We let other people tell us who we are, and that has got to stop.
Zeinabu Davis: Yeah, totally, I’m with you on that. So let me go right to the title of the film, because I think it’s really telling and interesting that the title of the film is not just Free Angela, but Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. Can you talk about that as a choice?
Shola Lynch: Sure. You know, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners was a working title, and I was like, you know what, I’m just going to keep it there, because I know once we get to the point of being finished, the distributors are going to be like, hmm, we’re going to cut it. The funny thing is, I feel like I’ve gotten away with something, because nobody’s cut it. [laughs]
Zeinabu Davis: That’s great. But for me, I love that it’s – I love the title as the full title, because that represents Angela’s spirit. It’s not just about her. It’s about the community and all of us.
Shola Lynch: I completely agree, because it’s not just about her. For her, it was never just about her. So it was something that was an easy give me – it was easy to give her that. And I said, as long as we can keep it, we’ll try. I also think that it helps you understand that it is not about the present. This, the story, uh, resonates with the present, but it’s about the past. We don’t talk like that now. [laughs]
Zeinabu Davis: This was a really big project, could you share how long it took you to collect your primary materials or, you know, your source data?
Shola Lynch: Sure. The hardest part for this project actually was raising the money, but then there were other things. Because it took so long to raise the money, there were other things we ended up having access to. Because it took over two years to get access to the FBI files. The process is just really slow. Then once we got the files, it took time to be able to comb through them. So what happens when you have a longer arc of time to work is that more stuff surfaces, more information surfaces. In a way I feel like an archaeologist. Because, you run out of money, but at a certain point, the film has to be done. With the film then, out in the world, I hope more information surfaces, more lost artifacts that are part of the story, and people will come forward. We pressed as hard as we could in the time that we had.