Shola Lynch’s second feature length documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners has been one of the most buzzed about films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The festival honored the film with a Gala premiere at the 1900 seat Roy Thomson Hall, a privilege usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters.
Angela Davis’ enduring iconic status, as well as the presence of two of the film’s Executive Producers, Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, certainly added to the event’s prestige, but ultimately, it was the film itself which drew several bouts of spontaneous applause throughout the screening as well as a lengthy standing ovation as the credits rolled.
The Director has had a busy few days, appearing on a panel the following day with her mentor and legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, to talk about the making of the film as well as her approach to her craft. Later on that evening she participated in a press conference alongside Ms. Davis.
Today, we had the opportunity to sit down for a face-to-face chat with Shola as she winds down a successful stint at TIFF 2012.
Lisa: So congrats on the premiere. Obviously we’re all seeing the result, but I would imagine that the process of getting here has been arduous. Tell me a little bit about getting the film together, especially given that Angela Davis is still a contentious figure.
Shola: Oh my goodness. You have no idea, no idea, no idea. Yes, that’s precisely what was hard about it was raising money and getting people to kind of partner with a project about somebody who is a black militant and who in many ways is still regarded as dangerous. It’s crazy to me 40 years later. And being a black woman making a film about a black woman I came under that same criticism as though immediately I’m going to just simply just celebrate her or uplift her and you know, there is suspicion over what kind of things I would leave out of the story. You know the challenge in telling this story where there are a million details related to both the crime and the trial and her politics is to find a balance between what is necessary to know and what you don’t need to know and what is necessary to know is the stuff that allows the narrative to move forward and to not leave out anything that is essential, right, right? So I had somebody on the phone today with me who said, “ You know the guns were registered in her name.” And I said, “Absolutely, yes.” “But you didn’t say that one of the guns was bought several days before August 7th.”
Lisa: And therefore you’re skewing.
Shola: Right! Exactly. Exactly. Therefore you’re skewing but because I dealt with the guns in…I chose to deal with the guns in a general way because she bought guns in places that she went. And she had them in various places like the Soledad Brothers’ house, which she was setting up, but in order for me to tell that story in the film that’s ten to fifteen to twenty minutes in a ninety minute film, so you know, what stories do you decide to tell? What is necessary? And I am frankly shocked at the way…listen. As a journalist, as a historian, as a storyteller, just because somebody tells me something is true, I don’t check the facts?
Lisa: So even at this stage you’re encountering blowback over how you told the story?
Shola: It’s just beginning to happen.
Lisa: How long a gestation has this project had?
Shola: It’s seven years…a year to talk her into it. Most of it was fundraising. I couldn’t raise enough to really be 100% in production so I would do it in fits and starts. You know but in that time I also got married and had two kids and had work for hire projects. Life had to happen because the way I fund raise for independent projects I try to put as much into the actual production in the development stages. So it’s not like I raise $50,000 and it goes to my salary, you know?
Lisa: There is a risk that in making a film about someone like Angela Davis that it could end up seeming polemic but you’ve described this film as a crime thriller. How and why did you decide to take that approach to the storytelling? Why those particular years of her life?
Shola: Yes, well, so really what it is is more of a crime drama and I think those years of her life are where she’s deciding who she’s going to become. You get to see the growth and evolution of Angela Davis the professor, the young 26-year-old graduate student and into the international icon. These are the things that kind of catapulted her to that. There’s her choices and then the intended and unintended consequences of her choices and how she responds. I mean I think it’s interesting to have the weight of the state on you and to think about how you would…how you would deal with that, the pressure of that. And you know, while there are things that I admire about her there were some of the choices where I’m like “Really? That?” So along with everybody else I wanted to know what happened really. And also to get to know the woman behind the icon. You know, who is this person?
Lisa: Which brings me to my next question. With Shirley Chisholm you had somebody who was largely fading into obscurity to a certain extent. With Angela Davis you have somebody about whom there is a huge amount of information, misinformation, disinformation. There’s a mythology. She’s an icon. How was your approach to those two subjects different? Did you approach it feeling like there was a record you wanted to “correct” or things that needed to be investigated?
Shola: There were questions that I had. I mean I really wanted to investigate, particularly I wanted to know what happened around that crime and you know, what her involvement was or wasn’t because it’s really the thing, there’s Ronald Reagan and what he says that gives her this national platform and then the fact that she’s tied to the crime, it just explodes the whole thing and explodes her kind of..what people know about her and the way she’s portrayed and she becomes definitely a nationally known figure and an internationally known figure as somebody being hunted by the FBI.
Lisa: What was her take on becoming involved in the project? There is a lot that’s been said and written. I’m sure she’s probably been approached before to talk about her life. How did you convince her to become involved?
Shola: It took a long time to convince her and partially it’s that..you know it was getting to key people in her life first and getting them to talk to me and then consent and then see the film, Chisholm. And then she finally watched the film, Chisholm and what she said is “I thought I knew that story” and the way she said it made me realize that there’s so much about her own story that she doesn’t know. You know for instance the whole scene with the FBI. She had no idea about any of that. The photographs that were in the FBI file, you know, I am sure she had completely forgotten and there’s footage she’s never seen before and so in a way the story is being brought alive again, not just for her but for everybody involved in that period who lived through it, watched it happen in real time either on television or as an activist.
Lisa: What did you discover about her that surprised you?
Shola: That she is who she says she is. Yeah, that she’s kind of consistent and principled and the story hasn’t changed over the years and everything that I checked out turned out to be accurate and so..like usually…for instance with the Chisholm story, she left out many things, you know. And one of the things she left out and she would not have talked about is Ron Dellums. She talked about Ron Dellums only in the positive and when I interviewed her I didn’t know that he had…we found that out only through the archival footage because nobody would talk about it. And so there are certain things in people’s lives, certain hurts, that they won’t talk about necessarily and I think in some ways you know Angela has been pretty consistent about what she says.
Lisa: I was struck by the part of the interview that dealt with her relationship with George and her expression of the pain and anguish she felt at having their letters read in open court and printed in the newspapers. For me personally I was quite surprised to see the veil kind of lift for just a moment. How did you feel about approaching that kind of more intimate subject matter with her?
Shola: (Laughs) I was going to approach it whether she liked it or not. And you know for a long time I wanted her to…Of course we hope when we interview somebody that they’re going to be like “You know what? Let me take the mask off and just give you everything I have”. Right? But it doesn’t…we’re complicated, we’re so complicated and so it took me a while to see all of the places that she did that because you have to get to know her and her personality and there’s things you notice when she…her body language becomes really important and I didn’t see that at first. I didn’t see how revealing she was being cause you know, you listen to it, you read the transcript..so, so what? It’s not the words, but it’s everything. Seeing her response is everything. She was never going to be like Philipe Petit in Man on Wire “Oh my god! I loved it!” That’s not her.
Lisa: One of the things that stood out for me was your choice of music. Right from the pre-title sequence, we’re thrown into the chaos, thrown into the drama. It’s arresting. It’s from Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (with vocals by Abbey Lincoln). Is that a piece of music that you had always had in mind? When did that come into the process?
Shola: (Nodding enthusiastically). Every time I thought about the crime I thought about Abbey Lincoln’s scream. I mean I’d worked on the Jazz project with Ken (Burns) so I had…you know I’m not a jazz head but there’s certain things when we were working on that that I just always wanted to spend more time with and was attracted to. And the scream, which is so beautiful and so broken and so full of emotion, it fits that because nobody was happy about that shootout. You know what I mean? Nobody wants all that death. There’s an intense political kind of battle going on and you know these events get started and nobody wants to see so many people dead or killed. There’s anguish in that. I don’t care what side of the political spectrum you’re on there’s anguish in that and sorrow. And it’s part of the reason why…there weren’t any words that I found that could make me feel enough. I said, “Let’s get the funerals. Let’s see how the communities dealt with it and it’s the sorrow on both sides.
Lisa: It works. In the liner notes for that record they talk about it being a “revolutionary re-writing of history”. You’re a black female filmmaker who has so far made two films about black female public figures. Do you feel like that statement kind of describes what you’re doing with your career – “a revolutionary re-writing of history”?
Shola: You know, I mean, I won’t fight that but I feel..Ok, my dad is West Indian. He is from Trinidad and Tobago and he studied West African, Caribbean and urban American history. In our house, we always had you all very colorful folks. (laughs), particularly the West Africans. And now listen, you don’t just come up into the house and lay down facts. You tell a story! You are the griot. You know our tradition of telling stories about each other has been lost. We don’t do it anymore in the same way and we rely on other people to tell us our stories, so we’re lost. We’re only seen in very two-dimensional ways, often, this is not always the case. And so we need to tell our stories. We need to ask our own questions. I’m not saying we all have to love each other. I’m not saying we all have to agree with each other. I’m not even saying we have to like each other but let’s respect each other enough to find out what really happened and not just take it on face value. You know that’s what I intended to do with this is find out what really happened to the best of our ability. But history is like archaeology, especially in this period. So I found new pieces. The vase is not complete. The dinosaur has not been built. There are obviously missing pieces but this is my contribution to that and it has taken us a little bit closer. Who’s to say in 10 years…I guarantee you that in ten years somebody will come along and revisit this or when the biography is written and there will be a whole new, either interpretation or a new set of facts that come out.
Lisa: So you’re just making your contribution
Shola: I’m making my contribution and I am doing it by all the standards of the practice. Plus, I want to make sure it’s a good film, so filmicly as well.
Lisa: You’ve made it quite clear that you want this film to play broadly, outside of the usual, what people consider to be the usual documentary market. What’s your ambition for it, what’s your greatest hope?
Shola: I really want it to get to the big screen. I guess part of it is that sometimes in the business there’s cynicism over whether there is audience for a story about a strong woman or a complicated woman or perhaps, an unlikeable woman in the sense that she’s not “nice”, you know? She’s controversial. I don’t think that’s true. I think that we are a little more capable of taking on a variety of characters so it would be great to have it on the big screen, it would be great to have people talking about the issues that are brought up in this and discussing them. Respectfully.
Lisa Harewood is an independent producer from Barbados, whose first feature, A Hand Full of Dirt, was nominated for Best First Feature Narrative Director at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and won the Reelworld Audience Award in Toronto. She's back in Toronto this year as one of Reelworld Film Festival's Emerging 20 filmmakers. Follow Lisa on Twitter @islandcinephile.