Say­ing her name


Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Sunday Arts & Style - By Joe Mey­ers

Doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing has come into its own over the past few years.

The­atri­cally, non- fic­tion films as di­verse as “RPG” and “Three Iden­ti­cal Strangers” have been box- of­fice hits this year, and some of the most talked- about pro­gram­ming on the Net­flix home stream­ing ser­vice has been non- fic­tion se­ries such as “The Stair­case” and “Wild Wild Coun­try.”

Dan­bury film­mak­ers Kate Davis and David Heil­broner were Os­car- nom­i­nated ear­lier this year for their doc­u­men­tary short, “Traf­fic Stop,” and they might find them­selves go­ing back to Los An­ge­les next year for their new non- fic­tion fea­ture, “Say Her Name.” The film ex­am­ines the mys­te­ri­ous 2015 death of San­dra Bland in a jail in a small Texas town.

Au­thor­i­ties said the 28- year- old black po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist hanged her­self, but friends and fam­ily be­lieved it was a po­lice mur­der. Davis and Heil­broner im­me­di­ately knew this was a story they wanted to tell.

“There was in­cred­i­ble fall­out from a seem­ingly benign traf­fic stop,” Davis says of the se­quence of events that be­gan with Bland be­ing pulled over for a fail­ure to sig­nal a lane change.

The woman was ar­rested and held in one of the few jail cells that were not un­der video sur­veil­lance. She made calls to her fam­ily back in Chicago to try to raise a $ 5,000 bond, but three days later she was found hang­ing from a noose made from a plas­tic garbage bag.

The event trig­gered na­tion­wide protests, but Davis and Heil­broner give us a whole new per­spec­tive on the case be­cause of the ac­cess they were given by Bland’s fam­ily as the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was un­der­way. The fam­ily also al­lowed the film­mak­ers to use ex­cerpts from the ex­ten­sive video di­aries kept by the young woman, so that she be­comes a vivid char­ac­ter in the nar­ra­tive.

Davis and Heil­broner flew to Texas 10 days af­ter San­dra Bland’s death to meet with the fam­ily about do­ing a film. “They needed to sniff us out,” Davis re­calls, adding that the fam­ily looked at their work be­fore giv­ing the film­mak­ers their bless­ing.

Heil­broner be­lieves he was able to get the fam­ily’s at­tor­ney, Can­non Lam­bert, in their cor­ner be­cause he is a for­mer prose­cu­tor with an in­sider’s un­der­stand­ing of the le­gal sys­tem. That back­ground also helped the film­mak­ers to con­vince the Texas po­lice to give in­ter­views about the events in the jail af­ter Bland was ar­rested.

“It took a long time to gain the trust of law en­force­ment be­cause they were seen as the en­emy ( by so many),” Heli­broner says. “We wanted to hear their voices...( to hear about) the mis­takes they made.”

The fact that “Say Her Name” gives both sides in the case a fair hear­ing makes it dif­fi­cult for a viewer to make a snap judge­ment about what hap­pened three years ago. In so many sui­cide cases, even some­one as up­beat and for­ward- look­ing as San­dra Bland can sink into a de­pres­sion no one else is ever aware of. And the film es­tab­lishes the idea that the traf­fic stop and jail­ing might have been a last straw for the woman.

But, even if Bland did kill her­self, the harsh treat­ment that never would have been di­rected at a well- heeled white woman cer­tainly was a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to her sad end.

Heil­broner says that no mat­ter what con­clu­sion an in­di­vid­ual viewer might draw, he hopes peo­ple will come away from the movie see­ing “that, in a sense, we are all part of a sys­tem that led to San­dra’s death... there were in­sid­i­ous fac­tors that broke her spirit.”

“One read­ing that can made is that she was lynched by the sys­tem at the mo­ment she was pulled out of her car,” Davis adds.

Although non­fic­tion films get more ex­po­sure now, the film­mak­ers’ goals haven’t changed over the years.

“Doc­u­men­taries are more in the pub­lic eye now, but we’ve been mak­ing doc­u­men­taries for more than 25 years,” Heil­broner says, adding that his mo­ti­va­tion has re­mained con­stant — “to tell sto­ries that make a dif­fer­ence in the world.”

Davis is cheered by the ex­plo- sion in non- fic­tion film­mak­ing, but warns, “It is very good on the sur­face, but does this cre­ate a glut, with many gems be­ing over­looked? ... In the old days, the good ones could rise to the top, but what hap­pens to the thou­sands of films ( made now) that are not watched? They could be ob­scure, but bril­liant.”

“Say Her Name” should be stir­ring a lot of con­ver­sa­tion this fall. In ad­di­tion to fes­ti­val screen­ings, the film will have the­atri­cal en­gage­ments in New York and Los An­ge­les that will qual­ify it for Academy Award con­sid­er­a­tion. And HBO will be show­ing the film on De­cem­ber 3.

One im­por­tant fac­tor in the rise of doc­u­men­taries has been the in­tro­duc­tion of dig­i­tal cam­eras and pro­jec­tors. In the old days, 35mm film was the only ac­cept­able for­mat for the­atri­cal ex­hi­bi­tion. If a doc­u­men­tar­ian shot and edited his footage on video, it had to be con­verted to 35mm film to be shown in movie the­aters.

“The shift to dig­i­tal has made ( the doc­u­men­tary field) much more demo­cratic,” Davis notes. “With my first film I had to have a 35mm print which was very ex­pen­sive...( now) whole films have been made on cell­phones.”

The Ridge­field In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val runs from Oct. 18 to 21 and will fea­ture more than a dozen films over four days, in­clud­ing the open­ing night at­trac­tion, “Wildlife,” the di­rec­to­rial de­but of ac­tor Paul (“There Will Be Blood”) Dano, star­ring Carey Mul­li­gan and Jake Gyl­len­haal.

The “spe­cial events” track is ded­i­cated to doc­u­men­taries, with the five screen­ings in­clud­ing “Say Her Name” on Oct. 20 at 2 p. m. and “Danseur,” about the con­tin­u­ing chal­lenge of get­ting boys to study bal­let, on Oct. 19 at 7 p. m.

“Say Her Name” will be screened at the Ridge­field In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val on Sat­ur­day, Oct. 20. A con­ver­sa­tion fea­tur­ing the film­mak­ers, Bland’s sis­ters and their fam­ily at­tor­ney will take place im­me­di­ately af­ter the movie. Many of the other films will also be fol­lowed by Q& A ses­sions. For com­plete sched­ule and ticket in­for­ma­tion, visit www. riff. org

Ridge­field In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val / Con­trib­uted pho­tos

Ex­plor­ing the death of ac­tivist San­dra Bland, right, Dan­bury film­mak­ers Kate Davie and David Heil­broner, above, co- di­rected the doc­u­men­tary “Say Her Name,” a high­light of the Ridge­field In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

Ridge­field In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val / Con­trib­uted pho­tos

Above, Carey Mul­li­gan and Jake Gyl­len­haal co- star in “Wild­fire,” which is be­ing screened at the Ridge­field In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val. Be­low, “2030” is one of the new films hav­ing its state pre­miere at the event.

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