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Black & White World: Two Directors, Two Viewpoints: 'Two Towns of Jasper'

By Kathy McDonald

From Marco Williams and Whitney Dow's 'Two Towns of Jasper', an ITVS and National Black Programming Consortium co-presentation. Photo: Steven Miller.

Opening with a visit to a shocking crime scene, then following three murder trials, Two Towns of Jasper examines American race relations from two lenses: one black and one white. Late one night in June 1998 in east Texas, James Byrd, a black man, was beaten and dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck. The accused: three white ex-cons, all affiliated with the white supremacist group the Aryan Circle.

Two New York-based filmmakers, Whitney Dow and Marco Williams, were drawn to the story, initially as a conversation among friends, then committed to the subject via a three-year odyssey of production, post-production and promotion. Friends for many years with similar backgrounds, they began their project with that initial discussion of the crime. "Although we have so much in common, when it came to racial core of the story, we had a divergent response," explains director/producer Marco Williams, who is black. Williams was not shocked by the crime, contending that blacks in America have been brutalized for centuries.

On the surface, Two Towns of Jasper is an investigation into one small town's response to a modern day lynching, but at the core, the systematic nature of racism, the fleeting interaction between two seemingly separate worlds, is explored.

Each director had his own crew. Dow, who is white, interviewed the white citizens and the respective families of the accused; Williams captured the black townspeople, as well as the victim's family. Both utilized a large format DV package (Dow also used a wireless boom). Shooting lasted for nine months, in order to cover the three trials of the accused murderers. That timeline serves as the documentary's framework. 

Before production began, Dow and Williams created a manifesto, a guide to shooting and interviews. Because of the intense media coverage, townspeople were not aware that the two crews (staying in different hotels) were working on the same project. Dow told participants after shooting; Williams advised his subjects who thought it made perfect sense. "They couldn't imagine going across the proverbial railroad tracks and having a candid discussion about race, so for them, I provided an opportunity to empower them," says Williams.

When production began, funding was not in place. Dow compares the experience to "going from rock to rock across a stream." As the directors shot, their proposal and show reel were further refined. Initially turned down by ITVS, the funder came on board after the crews had been in Jasper for three months, and the team had narrowed down and defined key characters. Because funds were limited, editing did not begin until after production, with the initial phase lasting six months. Each director edited independently, creating scenes, storylines and a rough assembly.

Dow's initial reaction to both cuts was subdued: "There was clearly good material on both sides, but some material was not really going to work together."  To integrate the two edits--essentially two movies--the directors started at the beginning with the first day of the first trial. They created an editorial language. "If one of us would have real vision for a scene, we would work with the editor," explains Dow.  "And the other person would walk in, watch it, talk about it and either pass the baton or go back to work." Editing became akin to running a relay, each tossing the cut back to the other.

 From the initial three-hour assembly, both made a cut, and the finished product is the amalgamation of those versions. It was a complex, two-and-a-half-year editing process. "With two directors, two agendas, two point of views, who has the last word?" asks Dow. Even simple cutaways within scenes were analyzed. "If we were talking about culpability in the section, who's going to define it?" adds Dow. "Which community? White? Black?"

While filmmaking is known as a collaborative medium, typically there's a singular vision-that of a director. As the two directors assembled the documentary, each not only had a different creative approach, but within the paradigm of race, each had a very different life experience. Williams elaborates: "The process of creating [the film] is a constant interaction between two people, discussing race. In the course of the film--even in scenes talking about Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday or the death penalty or the cemetery fence--at its base, characters in our film are talking about race, and at its widest,  directors in the room are talking about race."

Throughout the film's festival run, beginning with a Sundance 2002 premiere, the directors often accompanied the film, to participate not only in Q&As, but to facilitate dialogue between audience members. Most who see the film immediately want to discuss it.

"The value of our presence is that we are a reminder that when you're dealing with race, racial division, you're dealing with things that have vying perspectives," Williams maintains. "What we mediate by our presence--in terms of context--is a reminder that this has to be mediated across race. To me, that is what the film ultimately needs to do," declares Williams.

Two Towns of Jasper's festival prizes include the Grand Prize at the Full Frame Film Festival, Silver Award at Toronto Hot Docs and the Anthony Radziwill Documentary Achievement Award presented at IFP's Gotham Awards in October.

Culminating the year-long festival trek, Two Towns of Jasper is scheduled for a national airdate on January 22, 2003 on PBS. Plans for the broadcast, a P.O.V. special and part of its 15th anniversary season, are extraordinary. On January 21, the directors will screen scenes from the documentary and discuss them with Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline; the film will air Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. on PBS, followed by a Jasper, Texas town hall meeting, airing live on PBS, and moderated by Koppel.

Cara Mertes, executive producer of P.O.V., contends that this partnership between PBS and ABC will be a springboard for a unique national discussion. "Two Towns of Jasper is a starting place that really opens up a lot of questions," says Mertes. She hopes that viewers will complete the experience through the live town hall, community discussions and, virtually, through P.O.V.'s website. Mertes also lauds the filmmakers for taking on "a performance role" in following the film through to broadcast.

As Williams explains, the filmmakers' commitment to the project extends back to the genesis of the film, to their initially divergent responses based on their racial identities. "How do we create assistance to our television audience to think about this beyond their passive or myopic viewpoint?" he posits. "A town hall reminds us there's discourse; the context for presenting [the film] is very important."

Two Towns of Jasper is Dow's first documentary feature; Williams' credits include the long-form documentary feature In Search of Our Fathers. Williams is currently a faculty member at NYU. Both believe documentaries can be story driven and equal to fiction efforts. Williams prefers films with "stories well told," and includes among his favorites The Times of Harvey Milk , Killer of Sheep, The Godfather and Jean Rouche's Chronicle of a Summer. Dow credits two documentaries for influencing him deeply, Brother's Keeper and Hands on a Hard Body.

At press time, the filmmakers had not yet screened the film in Jasper. As the film delineates poignantly, the racial divide that exists may or may not be bridgeable. For instance, white residents on camera attempt to explain that flying a Confederate flag or using racial epithets is not racist, simply tradition. Some appear angry with the way James Byrd was martyred. "‘Judge not by the way you died but by the way you lived,' was a sentiment I saw a lot in the white community," says Dow. "There was this sense that ‘he [Byrd] caused us trouble but you should know that this guy was a problem.' People always blame the victim and push things away from themselves to explain why they are not culpable."

Two Towns of Jasper demonstrates the extent of the separation between black and white in one small town, but race relations have been an American problem since the country's founding. No profound conclusion or easy answers are proffered. The film does enable people to speak candidly about race and gives audiences a window into which they can see and hear how another race feels and thinks while within their own group.

 Williams admits that this gives him some hope: "We made a film that endeavors to discover the basis for talking about race across race by letting blacks and whites speak openly and freely about their views."


Kathy A. MacDonald is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to Variety and Daily Variety's editorial special reports.