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Thursday, December 13 Living

Ridgefield film fest features new doc about death of civil rights activist

Documentary filmmaking has come into its own over the past few years.

Theatrically, non-fiction films as diverse as “RPG” and “Three Identical Strangers” have been box-office hits this year, and some of the most talked-about programming on the Netflix home streaming service has been non-fiction series such as “The Staircase” and “Wild Wild Country.”

Danbury filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner were Oscar-nominated earlier this year for their documentary short, “Traffic Stop,” and they might find themselves going back to Los Angeles next year for their new non-fiction feature, “Say Her Name.” The film examines the mysterious 2015 death of Sandra Bland in a jail in a small Texas town.

Authorities said the 28-year-old black political activist hanged herself, but friends and family believed it was a police murder. Davis and Heilbroner immediately knew this was a story they wanted to tell.

“There was incredible fallout from a seemingly benign traffic stop,” Davis says of the sequence of events that began with Bland being pulled over for a failure to signal a lane change. The woman was arrested and held in one of the few jail cells that were not under video surveillance. She made calls to her family back in Chicago to try to raise a $5,000 bond, but three days later she was found hanging from a noose made from a plastic garbage bag.

The event triggered nationwide protests, but Davis and Heilbroner give us a whole new perspective on the case because of the access they were given by Bland’s family as the investigation was underway. The family also allowed the filmmakers to use excerpts from the extensive video diaries kept by the young woman, so that she becomes a vivid character in the narrative.

Davis and Heilbroner flew to Texas 10 days after Sandra Bland’s death to meet with the family about doing a film. “They needed to sniff us out,” Davis recalls, adding that the family looked at their work before giving the filmmakers their blessing.

Heilbroner believes he was able to get the family’s attorney, Cannon Lambert, in their corner because he is a former prosecutor with an insider’s understanding of the legal system. That background also helped the filmmakers to convince the Texas police to give interviews about the events in the jail after Bland was arrested.

“It took a long time to gain the trust of law enforcement because they were seen as the enemy (by so many),” Helibroner says. “We wanted to hear their voices...(to hear about) the mistakes they made.”

The fact that “Say Her Name” gives both sides in the case a fair hearing makes it difficult for a viewer to make a snap judgement about what happened three years ago. In so many suicide cases, even someone as upbeat and forward-looking as Sandra Bland can sink into a depression no one else is ever aware of. And the film establishes the idea that the traffic stop and jailing might have been a last straw for the woman.

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But, even if Bland did kill herself, the harsh treatment that never would have been directed at a well-heeled white woman certainly was a contributing factor to her sad end.

Heilbroner says that no matter what conclusion an individual viewer might draw, he hopes people will come away from the movie seeing “that, in a sense, we are all part of a system that led to Sandra’s death...there were insidious factors that broke her spirit.”

“One reading that can made is that she was lynched by the system at the moment she was pulled out of her car,” Davis adds.

Although nonfiction films get more exposure now, the filmmakers’ goals haven’t changed over the years.

“Documentaries are more in the public eye now, but we’ve been making documentaries for more than 25 years,” Heilbroner says, adding that his motivation has remained constant — “to tell stories that make a difference in the world.”

Davis is cheered by the explosion in non-fiction filmmaking, but warns, “It is very good on the surface, but does this create a glut, with many gems being overlooked? ... In the old days, the good ones could rise to the top, but what happens to the thousands of films (made now) that are not watched? They could be obscure, but brilliant.”

“Say Her Name” should be stirring a lot of conversation this fall. In addition to festival screenings, the film will have theatrical engagements in New York and Los Angeles that will qualify it for Academy Award consideration. And HBO will be showing the film on December 3.

One important factor in the rise of documentaries has been the introduction of digital cameras and projectors. In the old days, 35mm film was the only acceptable format for theatrical exhibition. If a documentarian shot and edited his footage on video, it had to be converted to 35mm film to be shown in movie theaters.

“The shift to digital has made (the documentary field) much more democratic,” Davis notes. “With my first film I had to have a 35mm print which was very expensive...(now) whole films have been made on cellphones.”

The Ridgefield Independent Film Festival runs from Oct. 18 to 21 and will feature more than 100 films over four days, including the opening night attraction, “Wildlife,” the directorial debut of actor Paul (“There Will Be Blood”) Dano, starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The “special events” track is dedicated to documentaries, with the five screenings including “Say Her Name” on Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. and “Danseur,” about the continuing challenge of getting boys to study ballet, on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m.

“Say Her Name” will be screened at the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival on Saturday, Oct. 20. A conversation featuring the filmmakers, Bland’s sisters and their family attorney will take place immediately after the movie. Many of the other films will also be followed by Q&A sessions. For complete schedule and ticket information, visit www.riff.org

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview

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