Skip to main content

Navigating the River: The Hidden Colonialism of Documentary

By Edwin Martinez

From Brandon Kramer’s 'City of Trees'. Courtesy of Meridian Hill Pictures

Crossing the Anacostia River back toward Northwest Washington, DC, tails between our legs, I thought, "Pick-up shoots are supposed to be easy."

We'd spent all day driving around the entirety of Southeast DC searching for iconic establishing shots for City of Trees, a doc we were making about a nonprofit organization working in this area. We stopped on top of a beautiful hill overlooking a small valley of medium-sized homes and blooming trees that climbed up over the opposing horizon, where I set up my tripod. It was a good shot.

Behind me, a woman started hollering. Like a dutiful shooter I kept rolling, leaving Brandon Kramer, the responsible director, to deal with it. Moments later, I heard my name called out with increasing intervals of urgency, until a woman brushed past me, forcibly grabbed the flip-out screen on my camera, and basically tried to rip it off while shouting that we needed to stop shooting and "get the fuck out of here."

Later, after a few minutes of silent driving, Brandon asked what I was thinking. I replied, "We got caught. We were lazy, we tried to take a shortcut, and we got caught."

While attending the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this past April to screen the now completed film, I attended the #DocsSoWhite Speakeasy featuring Leo Chiang, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, Sam Pollard and Roger Ross Williams; Ian Robertson Kibbe was the moderator. While any conversation that attempts to address race is inherently going to be difficult, the panel format is perhaps the least equipped to adeptly address topics of such trauma, necessity and nuance. Despite that, the panelists openly and sincerely strove to provide a deeper understanding of some of the race-related issues and obstacles in the documentary industry: inequitable funding, lack of access, implicit bias and ownership over stories of color. Throughout the conversation, each panelist—in his or her own way—articulated a shared challenge for filmmakers making films outside their own community: The onus is on them to "check themselves" and work to deeply understand what story they are telling, and why they are telling it.

Filmmaker Edwin Martinez. Photo: Charlotte Glynn

At first glance, this appeal seems simple and can be read as filmmakers just need to pay more attention to what they're doing. But in truth, it is deceptively elusive as it demands a paradigm shift away from well-established norms of behavior. Searching for stories, we filmmakers depart the comfort of our own world and travel into another—our station in life, ownership of some camera equipment, and a stack of releases serving as currency sufficient enough to step into someone else's town, house or soul. What happens when we swoop into a foreign reality (even one just a train ride away) and bring all our cultural assumptions, value systems and ways of seeing? When witnessing a situation, through whose eyes do we read that situation? To what conclusions do we jump? How does the lens of our unconscious bias inform, bend and determine the stories we tell, and how we tell them?

While editing City of Trees, we openly wrestled with these very questions. For over two years, from 2010 to 2013, the production team (director Brandon Kramer, producer Lance Kramer, DP Ellie Walton and others) filmed with local DC organization Washington Parks and People as they implemented a stimulus-funded, green-job training program for out-of-work DC residents, mostly from Southeast. Now, if you've never been to Southeast DC, let me break it to you: There aren't a lot of white folks walking around. Yet here was this organization and a team of filmmakers, all helmed by white men, attempting to work in and tell stories of a community of people who have a long and complicated relationship with visitors coming from across the river.

To their credit, when I came on the project, the Kramer brothers were already questioning the relationship of their point of view to the portrayal of the community they were filming. With most of the footage already shot, they wrestled with what story they could tell from their footage, but more importantly, what story they should tell. Beyond needing a competent editor, they sought someone with a different perspective who was willing to challenge not only the issues within the film, but also issues with the filmmaking itself.

We met a handful of years ago at AFI Docs, where they saw my previous doc, To Be Heard, a coming-of-age story of three best friends from the Bronx. In many ways, that was a film made by the very community it was about. The three friends met at school (where my mother was their college counselor), a block from my childhood apartment. Our sound guy (my brother) was a former student, and two of my co-directors were teachers of the class where much of the film's action takes place. Given our intimacy with these people and our shared world, we were able to frame a film, the scope and value system of which transcended the usual clichés inherent to films about urban, poor, brown young people.

Diligently attempting to bring this sensibility to City of Trees and avoid the "white savior" trope, we focused the film on three of the people who were being impacted by this program—Michael, a current trainee, and Charles and James, two former trainees now working for the program in different capacities. For months, we labored to make the film work as a character-based story about three black men changing their own lives. Yet no matter how much we tried, the movie always kind of sucked.

Brandon Kramer (left), director, 'City of Trees', with editor Edwin Martinez

As it was a KTQ Labs project, we took it to Kartemquin Films in Chicago for a rough cut screening—and we got our asses kicked. The film was too flat and without drama. We worked on it for months, searched for our juiciest material, hired an editing consultant (the fierce and brilliant Carol Dysinger), who then kicked our asses in private. We brought it to New York for another rough-cut screening, where we once again got our asses kicked in public. The beatings made it torturously clear that we did not know what movie we were making—not something you want to hear a year-plus into editing. Carol challenged us: "You are trying to make too many movies; you have to pick one."

It wasn't until Brandon and I were standing before a blank whiteboard that weekend, battered and re-conceptualizing our film from scratch, that I realized we were making the wrong movie. As liberally minded, "good hearted" people, we tacitly presumed we were supposed to make the uplifting character story about poor folks of color triumphing against all odds. And the reason we were having so much damn trouble was because that was not the movie we shot. But more importantly, it wasn't ours to make. So, why were we making this movie? And what story were we telling?

While I may have grown up a poor Puerto Rican kid in the Bronx, a diasporic member of a still-colonized people (similarly without federal representation!), Southeast DC is not my community, nor my world. Just because superficially I have enough "oppression points," I can't take the shortcut and assume I belong. Yes, I grew up poor, but I also carry with me a lot of privilege. My magnet school/Ivy League graduate degree/code-switching ass had access to a different experience than a lot of the folks with whom we were dealing. People like me hate to admit this, but being brown and down isn't enough. Nor was it enough for a couple of nice Jewish guys from Bethesda. Homegirl back on the hill reminded us of that with the quickness.

From Brandon Kramer’s 'City of Trees.' Courtesy of Meridian Hill Pictures

At its core, City of Trees is about the struggle to make change. Initially, and benevolently, our way of showing that was to put our three main guys on this special pedestal and effectively say, "Look how hard their lives are, look how many problems they have, and look how amazing they are to have solved them." Without realizing it, our desire to exclaim their amazingness inadvertently reduced them to the sum total of their respective circumstances, neglecting to see them as complete people. Of course, we did not think of the real guys in this way, but our creative choices defined their characterizations primarily by their difference to a hidden norm. It is this Western tendency to ethnographize the special, the exotic, the different, and to maintain such structures of separation and distance that have fueled a cultural colonialism for centuries.

At the #DocsSoWhite panel at Full Frame, I began connecting these dots. How did I, a filmmaker of color who is obsessed with context, representation and disrupting the status quo, fall into the same trap I constantly rail against? I wondered, aloud at the mic that day and again here, if there is something deeper within the documentary form that reproduces structures of social imbalance, bias and inequality of power. Beyond the people making the films, is there something baked into the DNA of our documentary form that is inherently colonial in nature?

The brutal truth is that the history of documentary filmmaking is rooted explicitly in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialism. For decades upon decades, Western filmmakers—almost exclusively white men—traveled to other countries and cultures to extract resources (footage), which they would exploit (edit) for the benefit of their home culture (theaters, film festivals, PBS, etc.). This flow of power, and along with it the control over these stories, historically traveled in one direction—from those without it to those with it.

To bring the point home, have you ever seen a documentary about rich white people made by poor black people?

From Brandon Kramer’s 'City of Trees.' Courtesy of Meridian Hill Pictures

This is the legacy of our form. And just like any hidden social fabric, it is often woven without conscious knowing. It is a perpetual-motion engine moving without conspiracy, masquerading as "just the way things are." Just as assuming a black college student is on an athletic scholarship, telling a Dominican girl her hair looks pretty only when it's straightened, or asking a trans person what they "really" are, we often miss the real implications of our own unexamined assumptions—even when we're not trying to cause harm.

At the blank dry-erase board, this realization crashing down around us, Brandon and I decided to flip the script on our film. Those first lines of blue and green marker began to sketch out a new story, one that would eschew the unconsciously patronizing approach we'd meticulously built for months. Rather than reproduce this colonial dynamic in the filmmaking, we brought Charles, Michael and James down off the pedestal, and treated them equally to the other white people in the organization. We reversed our gaze to instead focus on the very colonial struggle at play in our footage, an organization working in a community that wasn't theirs. Sometimes, to cross the river you have to capsize the boat.

Over the subsequent months, City of Trees evolved into a story of how everyone in the organization—black, white, male or female—struggled against a societal problem bigger than all of them: trying to make change within an hourglass of dwindling time and money. Of course the white boss' struggles look much different than the recent ex-con's, but whether you're fighting to keep your program alive on its last $80,000 or scraping together $120 to keep the lights on, bills are bills. No longer was the point of the film the implicit differences between people from Northwest and Southeast, because in the end they all, in very different ways, shared this burden.

From Brandon Kramer’s 'City of Trees.' Courtesy of Meridian Hill Pictures

Back on the hill, facing an irate woman shouting down at two strangers dropping anchor (in this case a tripod) on her block, I saw in her a familiar hate and rage, the kind you reserve only for invaders on your shores.

When I moved to stop the camera, she proclaimed that she had something to say. Her name was Tameka, and we shouldn't be shooting without talking to the people around here, that we're "putting our own words in it," and this was her street. She said a lot of them were suffering mothers (her son was killed) and are "under pressure," and that there could be beef if people down the hill saw us filming. That she was "from here since the sandbox, since I was born," and she wanted her voice to be heard.

Hidden away in the rarefied spaces of our edit rooms and rough-cut screenings, we precisely construct these deceptively perfect things we call films. We use our craft to blithely transport viewers through time, space and culture, then return them safely to the comfort of the denouement. Yet out here in the world, things aren't so tidy and neat. Life is messy, out of our control—and, as we doc-makers sometimes allow ourselves to forget, full of real people.

As we talked with Tameka, told her she was right (she was), and acknowledged it wasn't cool for us not to talk to folks first (it wasn't), things shifted. She saw we weren't afraid or defensive, but were listening and taking her perspective seriously. Her anger melted into the asphalt and suddenly, we were having a conversation. We thanked her for speaking to us, shook hands, packed up, and left her neighborhood for the long trip back across the river.


City of Trees is streaming online on through August 2.

Edwin Martinez is a Bronx-born filmmaker whose award-winning work has screened at film festivals, theatrically, nationally, internationally, on major television and news outlets. He is currently developing several feature-length projects, and has recently returned to his alma mater as an assistant professor of film in the SUNY Purchase Film Conservatory.