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Interview: Stanley Nelson Talks His Latest Doc, 'Freedom Summer' Which Premieres Tonight on PBS

Shadow and Act By Sergio | Shadow and Act June 24, 2014 at 8:29PM

Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson talks about his latest project 'Freedom Summer' for PBS' American Experience, and why it's so important for him to make documentaries.
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Freedom Summer

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson is, without question, one of the most important documentary filmmakers working today. His many films, such as "Freedom Riders," "A Place of our Own," and "Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind" have explored various aspects of black life, politics and culture, and how they still resonate today with us.

And now the Award winning, MacArthur Fellowship filmmaker continues, as he did with "Freedom Riders," exploring and telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement, with "Freedom Summer," which chronicles the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, when over 700 student volunteers from around the country joined organizers and local African Americans in a historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy, in what was one of the nation’s most viciously racist, segregated states. The film will make its broadcast premiere on PBS’ American Experience tonight, June 24th, at 9pm (check your local listings).

Stanley Nelson

Just yesterday, I had a chance to talk to Stanley about his new film, his filmmaking career start, and why he feels the need to make documentary films.

SERGIO: I’ve never asked this before to a documentary filmmaker, but why documentaries, instead of feature films? Is it because real events are inherently more dramatic and compelling than any fiction story you could dream up?

NELSON: I agree with that entirely, but that’s… (laughs)... not my story entirely. I went to film school in the early 70’s and that was the age of "Super Fly" and "Blacula."

SERGIO: Yeah the stuff I grew up with and still love...

NELSON: (laughs) And it was the first time that I had ever seen African Americans not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well. So I went to film school really to make fiction films, and that is what I was interested in. So I got out and I was looking for work, and I just happened to wonder into documentary filmmaker Bill Greaves’ ("Booker T.Washington: Life and Legacy," "Frederick Douglass: An American Life," "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm"office and I started working with him, and I got hooked, loved what I did, and loved making documentaries. 

And I loved the idea of .being able to work sort of continuously. You didn’t spend year after year after year writing a project, pitching a project, being turned down, writing another one then pitching again, etc. But by working with Bill, and working on my own stuff, I got better at what I did because I was working continuously on my own stuff.

SERGIO: So you feel that you have more freedom as a documentary filmmaker, because you make what you want to make instead of, like narrative filmmakers, who try too many times, to make something like another film that they think will appeal to an audience? You make what you believe in; what moves you.

NELSON: Well I kind of think it works both ways. You have to raise money, and those sorts of things, and the idea of doing something that does appeal to people. But nowadays with the lighter equipment that filmmakers are using in production and post-production, it’s easier now to make fiction films that look good and can be about anything. 

But I must say that we have not yet seen the kind of explosion of different voices in films that I had hoped would come with this new lighter equipment; but hopefully one day soon that will happen.

SERGIO: Well, as I always say, the great thing about this new technology in filmmaking is that anyone can make a film, and the bad thing with all this new technology is that anyone can make a film...

NELSON: I agree. But let me add that, one of the things that we do here at my production company Firelight, is what we call Producers Lab, and we work with 15 to 20 filmmakers of color and help them to get their documentary films done and broadcast on the air, and it’s been a huge success. We have 8 documentaries of feature length that will on the air in this calendar year and it just keeps growing strong.

SERGIO: Going back to Freedom Summer, you have made, of late, quite a few documentaries about the Civil Rights struggle during the 1960’s. Do you think one of the reasons why is because younger generations have no real knowlege of an important aspect of American history which wasn’t even that long ago?

NELSON: Well I think one of the great gifts that I’ve been given is the opportunity to make films about the Civil Rights Movement, and as you said it wasn't even that long ago. 50, 60 years ago. And there are so many people alive, who are still vibrant, who were part of that, and can still talk about it. There’s so much great footage, great pictures and great stories that we don’t know. 

It’s really surprising how little people know about the Civil Rights Movement, and one of the startling things that has happened is showing "Freedom Riders" and "Freedom Summer" to groups of immigrants, people who have recently come to this country. And their reaction to the films, they are like “WHAT? We had no idea your people have been treated like that!" I mean they literally had no idea about segregation, about Jim Crow, about lynchings, about black people being denied the right to vote, being denied the right to full citizenship. I mean they never even heard about it. 

So I think it‘s really important for a number of reasons, not just for historical reasons. And also it colors everything that happens in the United States today. So if you don’t know what happened in the past, then how does anything that goes on today make sense?

SERGIO: You’re absolutely right! All you have to do is just look at the current news. They’re still dealing with the same issues, just in a different way. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

NELSON: Right, but it’s also really important for us to understand how racist - how outright racist - this country was just 50 years ago. And sure, this country has changed, changed massively, but to understand that, you have to understand some of subtleties, the racist things, that are going on today; To take a peek behind the curtain and understand what’s going on; the subtext and the hidden agendas of what we see constantly in the media today.

SERGIO: You talk about the reactions that immigrants have to your films, but what is the reaction from young people? And the reason I bring that up, and I know I am painting with a very broad brush, but it seems to me that the young generation, the millennials as they are called, have no interest in history, or the past. When I was younger, I, like my peers, were fascinated by history. We couldn’t get enough of it.

NELSON: The reaction I get from younger viewers has just been incredible. Standing ovations, just amazing questions, so I think when young people are confronted with history, and are shown history, they are very involved and really want to know more. I think one of the problems is that, there’s a general perception in the United States that we sort of live on this island, and that nobody can touch us. So, we don’t have the same interest that, say, people in Europe, have, where the countries are all closer together, or like you can walk to China from India. You see, they’re all connected. So here we’re on an island, and we don’t really feel or care what happens in, say, Mexico. We’re on an island and nothing can touch us, and that’s our attitude.

But I do think that one of the important things with young people is that they are still aware that there are problems and things that need to be fixed, though they may not necessarily know how to fix them; and also because they are so distracted. There is so much distraction going on with all this new technology, compared to what we had when we were younger. It’s hard to filter out all those distractions.

SERGIO: You’re right. Look at what people do now, everyone is looking down, always at their iPads or iPhones, with earplugs ,closed off in their own secret worlds. No one makes eye contact anymore with anyone. No communication.

NELSON: Yeah, I think that young people will have to figure that out for themselves. I don’t want to sound like a fuddy duddy, or an old man, but it’s up to them. It’s a new world and somehow the new technology has to be more connected to the real world, the physical world, that you can touch and hold and feel. Somehow the technology will find a way to be used in that way.

SERGIO: Finally, what makes you decide on a subject to make a documentary about? You have no doubt many subjects to pick and choose from that interest you; so what is it about a particular subject that screams at you and says, “Make me, make me!”?

NELSON: Great question. Well, my current project that I am working on now, that will be finished by the fall, is about The Black Panthers. But going back to my first film, "Two Dollars and A Dream," about Madame C.J. Walker. That film took me 7 years to make, and that made me realize that, when I enter into a film, it may be a long journey, and that it has to be something that is really important to me That I am willing to make, what may be a 3, or 5 or 7 year journey to get a project completed. So because of that, I’m going to stay the course, and [make sure] that it's something that is also very important to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world as well.

Here’s an exclusive clip from Freedom Summer:

This article is related to: Stanley Nelson


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