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Class Matters: Full Frame Looks at the Economic and Racial Divide

By Tracie Lewis

Last August and September, we witnessed the disastrous attack and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The images were so overwhelming, they forced us to think about ourselves and where we would be and what we would do if something like this were to happen to us. Katrina pushed issues of poverty, race and class in our face and stimulated a dialogue of societal responsibility.

Nancy Buirski, the founder, CEO and artistic director of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, wanted to explore the issues that arose from the disaster as a theme at this year's festival. "We usually look for issues that are either very timely or urgent," she explains. "Sometimes they deal with the process of filmmaking but most often we look for an idea that feels relevant to the times. This is one of the rare times that we actually took something as current as the Katrina films and turned that into a Southern Sidebar We typically have one large thematic program and a Southern Sidebar and often connect the two. This year the connection was obvious and ideal in a way."

To complement the Sidebar, Buirski wanted to program a film series that would focus on class in America, so she turned to veteran filmmaker, producer and writer St. Clair Bourne to curate the program, entitled Class in America. "St. Clair has been someone I've wanted to work with for many years," she says. "I know his work, I know his reputation and I know that he cares about these issues."

Bourne willingly took on the assignment and solicited documentary listservs and organizations such as the Black Documentary Collective (BDC) in New York, Black Association of Documentary filmmakers (BAD West), Doculink and DocuClub to obtain films on class. After receiving about 110 entries, Bourne was disappointed that the films were about race and not class. "I thought from the progressive wing of the film industry, you would have thought that they would be more knowledgeable, but it just goes to show how much class is confusing to people," Bourne observes. "Three fourths of [the films] were really not about class; they were about race and specifically a black person in trouble and a white person trying to do something for them."

Bourne's challenge in finding documentaries on class and not race proved daunting. He was specific in looking for conflict. "I'm old school," he admits. "I believe that the way you observe class operating in America is through situations where the two classes are in conflict." The series addressed issues of class, ranging from the clash between working-class Mexican immigrants (Recalling Orange CountryMylne Moreno, dir.) to the history of domestic workers and a look at the change from work once dominated by African-Americans now taken over by Latinos (Maid in AmericaAnayansi Prado, dir./prod.; Kevin Leadingham, prod.) to a film over 30 years old, yet still relevant in today's society in examining the Black middle class (Still a Brother: Inside the Black Middle ClassWilliam Greaves, dir./prod.; William Branch, prod.).

Other documentaries in the program included Born Rich by Jamie Johnson; By Invitation Only by Rebecca Snedeker; Desireby Julie Gustafson; Finally Got the News by Stewart Bird, Rene Lichtman and Peter Gessner; Flag Wars by Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras; The Last Pullman Car by Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal; Lay My Burden Down by Jack Willis; Now We Live on Clifton by Peter Kuttner, Gordon Quinn and Richard Schmiechen; Poverty Outlaw by Peter Kinoy and Pamela Yates;Stranger with a Camera by Elizabeth Barret; and The Weather Underground by Sam Green and Bill Siegel.

The Class in America Symposium, moderated by Tom Kuntz from The New York Times, included panelists Bryant, Gustafson, Johnson, Snedeker, Janny Scott (The New York Times), Joseph Jordan (professor of Afro-American studies at University of North Carolina) and John Jackson (associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University).

"Historically, it has been so difficult to study up, and easy to study the poor," Jackson noted. This point is evident by the media images from Katrina, which rarely captured the wealthier residents of the Gulf region. One explanation for the protection is the rich have gatekeepers. But one person who has access beyond the gates and the courage to expose the stories is Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune. "It is taboo to talk about wealth and talk about class," he admitted. In his filmBorn Rich, which aired on HBO in 2003, Johnson talks to ten young adults from wealthy families about being rich. "A number of people refused to be in my first documentary and even more refused to be in my second," he noted. There was even an attempt made to block the film's distribution. One subject, alleging he was tricked into participating in the film, said that it was humiliating and embarrassing to him and his family. Johnson debuted his second film, The One Percent, which explores the rapidly growing wealth gap in America, at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.

New Orleans native Snedeker gives an insider's view of the 150-year-old tradition of Mardi Gras Balls in her film By Invitation Only, which she completed just days before its world premiere at Full Frame. She had access because for generations her family participated in the private, high-society Mardi Gras festival. The first in her family to shun the legacy, Snedeker follows a young lady in the months leading up to the ceremony. "Honestly, it was terrifying," Snedeker admitted during the symposium, about making the film. The custom, which celebrates white supremacist values, originates from former Confederate slave-owners after the South lost the Civil War. "It took a long time to find a tone that I was comfortable with because there are things I wanted to say and questions I wanted to ask," Snedeker explained. "There are parts about the tradition that I loved, and I wanted the film to achieve it. I think that the reason the traditions are so secret is because they know something is wrong."

Visiting her hometown of Columbus, Ohio after many years, Bryant noticed several pastel flags on homes in the neighborhood. She thought it was the resurgence of the Flower Club, but her father told her that the new gay neighbors had put them up when they moved inand subsequently changed the look of the once primarily African-American neighborhood. Back in New York, Bryant visited a friend in her new apartment in Harlem who is white and a lesbian. She made Bryant aware that the influx of new gay neighbors was prevalent in many African-American communities across the country, and that it would make a great documentary. Bryant was unsure at first, but then concluded that if the story could be told in a cinema vrit style, she might be interested in taking it on.

"Producer Laura Poitras and I went in assuming that gentrification would look differently because here are two historically oppressed groups in America and they would connect on that common history, and would change how gentrification looked," Bryant maintained. "So the thing that was most surprising to me is that gentrification didn't change, that issues of class and race and to a lesser degree, gender or sexual orientation, replicated what exists in regular heterosexual white/black relations in America."

What was also surprising for Bryant was the criticism across the race lines that Linda Mitchell--an African-American who lived in the neighborhood and happened to be an alcoholic--was a primary character. It was a position taken by the African-American community, as well as the funders and programmers. "They weren't able to see that she loved her house just like they loved their houses," Bryant points out.

The 14 films in the program accomplished the mission of addressing issues of class in America. "I don't think that this is the definitive statement on class in American documentary," Bourne admits. "This is just one attempt and it's a highly personal point of view and anybody else is welcome to do his or her version, and I will go see it."

Buirski and The New York Times are currently discussing the possibility of touring Class in America around the country.