Doc Star of the Month: Vivian Anderson, 'On These Grounds'
Though abolishing the police is still viewed as a fringe idea here in America, what happened to a Black female student in South Carolina is exhibit A for doing just that, in at least one public institution. Pulled from her desk and dragged across the floor by a white officer, the shocking act was immortalized in a viral video back in 2015. Which in turn sparked outrage, but also changed lives. And one life in particular—that of healer-activist Vivian Anderson, who subsequently left New York City for Columbia, South Carolina. And there she stayed, single-handedly taking on the Herculean task of supporting not just the survivor of that particular police brutality but all Black girls in the community, while also facing the deputy and attempting to take down the system behind him with the same unrelenting force he’d used on a traumatized teen.
Documentary is honored to shine a spotlight on the protagonist of Garrett Zevgetis’ SXSW-premiering On These Grounds, which follows Anderson on her quest to just say no to the status quo. On These Grounds, an IDA Fiscal Sponsoree, hit virtual and physical theaters on September 24, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures, and is accompanied by a juvenile justice impact campaign.
DOCUMENTARY: So how did you first meet Garrett and the team, and what made you trust them with your story?
VIVIAN ANDERSON: They were trying to reach out to the girls who were involved in the incident in Spring Valley, and at that time I was directly connected to both girls. They had reached out to Niya, the girl who stood up for Shakara [who had been assaulted by the officer]. Niya reached out to me and was like, “Somebody invited me, Ms. Vivian…” I was like, “Oh, they want to write something about your experience. That’s fine, figure out what it is. And I think this is good because I believe you get to be the narrator of your own story. If they have a way for you to tell your own story, then this could be awesome.”
So they met with Niya, and then Niya was like, “I want Ms. Vivian to be a part of this somehow. Just talk to Ms. Vivian.” Or they wanted to talk to me because Niya kept talking about me. So after our first meeting—and I’m not exaggerating because it took me like a whirlwind—that was that. They were like, “Here's our focus. Here's our thing.” I just started listening for where they wanted to take this. And because of the work that I was doing, I know that if it's a bunch of white people trying to pimp Black kids, I'd just cut it off. But it was never that.
It was like, “How do we tell an authentic story? What are all the layers that we get to look at?” And because they weren't just looking at the story itself but all the conditions that create the story, that's what really got me to come in. Really, at no time did I think I was gonna be a part of this. This ain’t about me. I thought I was supporting them, allowing them to speak with the girls. But more and more it was like, “Can we talk to you today? You’re an interesting piece of this.” And I was like, “I am?” Listen, I keep telling people my source is God, and when God moves, he moves. So get out the way and let God move. And then four years later, we're here.
D: So you're the accidental protagonist—a supporting character that was unwittingly made the star. That’s fascinating. But did the team, being mostly white, give you any pause? How exactly did you feel about these folks telling this story?
VA: At first I'm like, Okay, well, wait a minute. But then the team that came to film was multiracial. So I'm like, Well, let's see. And if they asked me a question that I didn’t like, I said, “What are you trying to get to underneath this? Where are you trying to go with this? What are you trying to do?” And they never pushed back. They were like, “We want to hear this. We want to hear from you. How should we grasp this? How should we do this?”
I would say things like, “Don't look for a perfect ending. These girls, these are their lives. This ain't just a documentary you make.” There were days when Shakara just didn’t feel like filming and they were like, “Well, can you just call her and say we really need to film?” I said, “Absolutely not. How much grace are you gonna give to somebody who’s actually living the trauma?” And they got it. Even though they flew down to South Carolina and she didn’t show up for filming, or she said, “You can't come in to film,” they said okay and went back home. There was no upset. I think the trusting just became daily, daily, daily.
"They weren't just looking at the story itself, but all the conditions that create the story; that's what really got me to come in."
- Vivian Anderson
D: Sounds like it was more of a collaboration.
VA: Yeah. Later they were like, “You’re just as much of a producer in this.” I was like, “I ain't producing nothing; this is y'all film.” I just wanted to make sure the girls' actual authentic voices were told in the way they wanted. I didn’t want it scripted. None of that. Their authentic lives—[I was] just making sure that that took place.
D: Though you are front and center in the film, I was a bit surprised to see so much screen time given to the white officer as well—which ends up humanizing him, warts and all. Were you aware he’d be featured so prominently? Are you disturbed or at all ambivalent about his portrayal?
VA: Well, no, because there's more than one side to a story. So if we're gonna tell the whole story, we have to bring everybody into the story, right? And one of the things that I respected about [the filmmakers] is that they sat down and talked to Niya. They talked to Shakara. They talked to me—though I kept telling them, “Y'all don't have to talk to me. It ain't about me!” But they made sure to do that before they did anything with him. The girls were like, “He can say whatever. It ain't gonna change what I have to say.”
D: Interesting. So everybody was onboard with him appearing in the film.
VA: Absolutely. Though one of the things that I was very adamant about was, don't force the girls to try to have conversations with him. If they're not ready, they're not ready. Restorative justice is the work I do, and restorative justice is when you bring the harmer and the one who they harmed together. That's not an overnight process. They would've loved for that to have happened in this film, but nobody’s there yet. And we’ve got to keep talking about the way the world's been changing over these last four years to understand why we can't be there.
D: Yes, there’s a point where you meet with him, but the girls never do.
VA: I said to the girls that if y'all don't want me to meet with him, I will not. But because of the work that I do, I did want to look that man in the eye. Because I believe in restorative justice, and I believe in reconciliation. I had to say that if I'm gonna do this work, I don't get to pick and choose who gets to have reconciliation, second chances and all these other things.
And I remember thinking about how I forgave my brother, who raped me. So how can I not sit across from this man? And those are things that move in my head all day, every day. I don't want anybody to harm my brother and treat him in bad kinds of ways. I want him to be healed. I want him to understand what he did—and then I want to get to the root of what created what he did. So that's what my motivation was—to say that if I want this world to look better, how much of a stake in the game am I willing to play?
D: I also found it quite interesting that the film exposes so many blindspots. I mean, the reason this white officer can tackle a Black girl to the ground and still claim not to be racist—and believe it—is because he is somewhat accepting of diversity and inclusion. At one point his ex-girlfriend, a Black woman, even attests to his character. Yet what he can’t countenance is actual equality. This Black girl dares to challenge his place in the racial hierarchy. Which makes him less of a monster than a stand-in for a huge swath of our population. So do you think restorative justice might ultimately be a way to force people to see their own blindspots?
VA: It’s not our place to make people see things. All we can do is keep speaking and bringing awareness. For me, I'm not gonna lie; it tired me out. He wore me down. One day I would be like, "Yes, he got it!" And then five minutes later I'll be like, "Are we starting back all over again?"
And it was one of those things where I always told him if we moved away from right or wrong, good or bad, was this action he took just? What if this had been a white girl? Let's really look at it. How are you making your decisions? Without blaming you or shaming you, but really looking at what the root is in this context. What's your context? What's your framework from where you live? And then let's talk about that. And so for me it was tiring.
"If they asked me a question that I didn’t like, I said, “What are you trying to get to underneath this? Where are you trying to go with this? What are you trying to do?”"
- Vivian Anderson
D: There is no easy solution.
VA: There is no easy way. And I'm sure there's times when he wanted to strangle me; his thing was trying to figure me out. And I was like, “You want to figure me out so you can box me somewhere. I'm not boxing you, so don't box me. I’m not only this, and I’m not gonna say you're only that.” I believe that everybody has genuine heart in them—and it's been guarded and blinded and scarred by so many things—and so I look to talk to the human, not the behavior. And so I'm like, “I think you were a human who did a really bad thing.” And every time, you'll see he acknowledges it in the film. But then you also got 1,200 folks on Twitter telling you this and that, and my one little voice suddenly don't mean nothing. Because now you're gonna think I’m saying that you’re bad. And I'm like, “No, I’m saying you did something that wasn't just in that moment.” All we're talking about is that moment.
When it comes to children, are we seeing children as children? He never saw Shakara as a child. So I just need you to acknowledge that when you saw that Black girl, you did not see a child. We can say you’re not racist, but there's racism. And not just that. There's so many levels—of patriarchy, sexism, gender bias…
D: It’s a systemic thing.
VA: When we started—and it's not in the film—but when we started he was like, "You've been dragging my name through the mud. You said I did this and that on your website.” First of all, and I ain't trying to be funny, but I said, “Your name does not appear on anything I write because you're not my point. I might've said a school resource officer, but I never said your name. And to be honest, I didn’t want your name to overcrowd everything I was talking about. You've never been my point.”
See, it’s the gun that’s the point. The system that created that, is the point. I don't spend my days and nights trying to figure out someone's last name. I told him, “If you were another officer, I'd be sitting here talking to them. It ain't about you.”
D: So are there any scenes that you find especially uplifting—or did anything surprise you when you saw the final cut?
VA: I love when Shakara was just able to speak. I love any time I see my girls just celebrating themselves. I was pleased with the final film because it shows a multiplicity of voices. I don’t care where you're coming from, where you've been, somebody in this film is gonna connect with you. I do love the way we're able to get all the voices in.
D: Do you have any particular hopes for the film now that it’s being seen nationwide?
VA: I want whatever Niya and Shakara want. But one of my personal goals is that this film becomes a professional development tool for schools—even in colleges, as folks are starting to go into schools and teaching. Before you even step into a classroom, before you get your teaching degree, I want to address how we can start looking at education in a different way.
And also, I think we can do police-free schools. We see it happening across the state. But until then we really need to go into law enforcement with this film. Like the officer said, “At the end of the day I'm a cop.” But at the end of the day you're a cop who's been assigned to a school. So we need to address how you feel about being a cop who's been assigned to a school. That wasn't your dream job, right?
And then, more than anything, I just want to be in the community with the film. For elected officials, I really want this to start changing laws. How do we get young people to have their voices be a part of the decision-making? And also for any girl who's experienced it, I hope this film makes them feel like they've been wrapped and held even if that wasn't their specific story.
Finally, I think it’s important that we don't get caught up in the idea that this incident was something that happened in 2015. Understand that this is something that's happened before 2015, and continues to happen. Even during COVID, when kids were doing virtual learning, we had police running into homes. And so my whole thing is, if we remove blame and shame and guilt and fault from things, what does it mean to have a just world that kids can live in?
If we make this a singular type of thing or a trending thing, we're gonna miss the point. Our schools are a microcosm of what's happening in our entire world. In Africa there's a saying: "Are the children well?" That's how we know how well a society is doing. Right now I want folks to take away that we need to focus on our children, to really look at the things that we're creating and that they're learning from us. How can we as adults take responsibility for what we're teaching?
In this incident we got race, gender—and the one thing that I keep pushing for people to think about, we also have a class conversation. Because if Shakara was a privileged Black child, that wouldn’t have happened to her. It wouldn’t have happened to an Obama child. Nobody sees these kids as worthy because of their economic status and their class status. So this is not a race conversation.
D: It’s more about where you stand in the power structure.
VA: It’s patriarchy. It’s white supremacy. It’s sexism and gender bias and classism. All the isms. They all come together.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.