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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Stanley Nelson - 'Freedom Riders'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Stanley Nelson, director/producer/writer of Freedom Riders.

Synopsis: Freedom Riders is the first feature-length film about a courageous band of civil rights activists who called themselves the Freedom Riders. They challenged segregation in interstate transport in the American South during the spring and summer of 1961. The attention the movement generated caused the federal government to take down Jim Crow signs of "whites only" and "colored only," allowing every American to travel freely-a legacy we enjoy today.




IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Stanley Nelson: When I was in film school, DA Pennebaker was the guest professor, and that sparked my interest in documentary film. After graduation, I worked with William Greaves, one of the first African-American documentary filmmakers. He inspired me to start making documentary films. 


IDA: What inspired you to make Freedom Riders?

SN: It's a fantastic story about the beginning of the civil rights movement. It's ordinary people, both white and black, secular and non-secular, becoming involved in changing this country. Many people know the term "freedom riders" but don't know the drama that is inherent in the story. I thought that now is the perfect time to tell the story of the freedom riders because many of the people involved are still living, vital and energetic.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

SN: One of the biggest challenges was the creative decision to tell the story without a narrator. We felt this was important because we believe first-person storytelling connects better with an audience and would feel more authentic and in the moment.
Another challenge was finding witnesses on all sides of the freedom riders story. We wanted the film to be well rounded and include different voices. We were fortunate to get the governor of Alabama at the time, John Patterson, to participate in the film and a number of other white southerners who were able to give insight into the mindset of some white people in the South. We think it makes for an incredibly well rounded and, in some cases, startling portrait of the South at the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Another great challenge was locating footage and stills from the era. It took over a year of digging all over the world, including major archive houses, people's attics, local historical societies and foreign archives.
We even uncovered footage from the FBI that had never been seen before by the general public. The day the FedEx envelope arrived with the footage from the FBI was one of the more memorable moments in making the film.
Another archival coup was that we were able to persuade Johnson Publications (Jet and Ebony magazines) for the first time to let us use photos that were taken for them by the only photographer on the first two weeks of the ride. Many of the photos had never been published and in fact, many of the photos had never been developed; Johnson Publications processed the negatives for us.
We've been very fortunate to win two IDA Awards in the past several years for the discovery and use of footage in films: Jonestown: Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006) and Wounded Knee (2009). We believe in strong archival material. It can add a rich tapestry to the storytelling, and make historical films come alive and make the viewer feel as if the film is unfolding right before their eyes. The sound on tape for Freedom Riders is as incredible as anything we've ever done.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

SN: We knew it was an important story, but we didn't realize all the twists and turns in the storytelling. It was like developing a photo in a dark room. As the image slowly appears, it starts out a bit murky, then in the end it's surprisingly clearer and more powerful than you had envisioned.
The film is set at the beginning of the civil rights movement, during the beginning of the careers of the Kennedys and of Martin Luther King Jr.--before they all become icons. We realized this was a golden opportunity to include some fascinating and unexplored details. The film talks about how both President Kenney and Robert Kennedy were not in favor of the civil rights movement, and shows Martin Luther King Jr grappling with what his role should be in the movement. These are surprising and fascinating pieces of information, and we felt including this makes the film that much more powerful.


IDA:  As you've screened Freedom Riders--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

SN: The audience reaction has been incredibly overwhelming. This is a story that people think they know, but don't. Our film premiered at Sundance, and the film received standing ovations at every performance and people were moved to tears. We were stunned.
While at Sundance, one of the biggest reactions we had was at a screening for high school students, who clapped along, gave it a standing ovation and stayed long after the film had screened to sing freedom songs with several Freedom Riders who were in attendance. For people who weren't alive at the time, they were very moved by the story.
One common theme we've been surprised and gratified to discover is that people say the film speaks to today, and the need for average people to take a stand. People were moved by the courage of the Freedom Riders.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

SN: Eyes on the Prize is an inspirational documentary series. Inspiring filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa.


Freedom Riders will be screening August 13 through 19 at the the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Freedom Riders in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for Freedom Riders in New York, click here.