Carvin Eison's film “July ’64: Roots of Urban Unrest" screened during our Spotlight on Black History Month Series in 2008. We are pleased to share his latest film, "Shadows of the Lynching Tree" in this year's Series. In this interview Carvin chats with us about his latest film, funding a movie and how he develops ideas. We hope you will come out and see his film during February.
Carvin, what draws you to film as an artistic medium?
Documentary work is my expression right now. At a purely academic level, I’m fascinated by the complex intersection of images, words and sounds. In skillful hands, these elements can influence perception and tap deeply into subconscious arousal. This medium has impact on human behavior. The craft and tools are alluring but what’s most important to me is how I can use this medium to search through time in pursuit the truth. Documentary picture making is about getting as close as possible to the truth of a matter while establishing an emotional connection with the viewer. If I accomplish this, it is likely that the substance of my work will remain with a person, in some way, for some time. This is what I am attempting to do in “Shadows of the Lynching Tree.”
How did receiving a grant from the Sundance Documentary Fund help Shadows of the Lynching Tree most?
Sundance as well as the Diversity Development Fund at ITVS and the Paul Robeson Fund were very important to the completion of “Shadows of the Lynching Tree.” These organizations gave the project stature and clout and they continue to say to film community, including festivals, broadcasters and distributors, this film is worth paying attention to. I am grateful for all they have contributed to this film. However, I was never able to generate enough funding here in the United States to complete the picture. But in Europe and particularly Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, (MDR) Germany Public Television provided the critical levels of funding that made the production possible. This singular fact suggests that in the United States lynching remains a difficult subject to address.
How do you distribute your films?
My previous documentary, “July ’64: Roots of Urban Unrest,” is distributed by California Newsreel, the oldest distributor of political documentaries in the country. It is possible that California Newsreel will also distribute “Shadows of the Lynching Tree.” The plan is first to have the film screened at film festivals in the country and around the world. It is already an official selection at the 2010 San Diego Black Film Festival and at the 2010 Idée Suisse BaKa FORUM on TV and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany. We are currently in conservation with PBS that may lead to a national broadcast once the festival circuit has run its course.
If there is one takeaway from Shadows that you hope audiences will have, what is it?
There’s an old saying that goes “let sleeping dogs lie…,” in other words, leave that certain thing alone cause if you keep on bother it again it could cause you trouble. The shrouded history of lynching in America is one such sleeping dog. It’s a sleeping dog because unlike other human atrocities such as the Jewish holocaust or South African apartheid, lynching in America has largely been ignored. Our nation has never come to terms with the brutal killing of its citizens because of the color of their skin. As we have so completely repressed this history, it has become the blueprint by which we negotiate cross-racial communication. With Shadows of the Lynching Tree, I am kicking that sleeping dog and disturbing the troublesome past. The dog is awake, will we finally confront the beast or does it return to an uneasy slumber?
How did you develop the idea for Shadows?
March 2005 I came across James Allen’s book on lynching photography entitled “Without Sanctuary.” They disturbed me to my core. I could not believe what I was looking at. I could not put it down – I could not pick it up. From that day to this, in every way, it changed the meaning of my life. It took me years to come to terms with the images. I couldn’t figure out my relationship with them, I didn’t know how to present them, I didn’t understand their full meaning, in some ways I still don’t. Gradually I realized that after the barbarity of the killing, it was the “onlookers,” those who linger in the background, those who crane their necks to be seen in the photograph, in the images, the women and children, the gentry, the festive atmosphere. I never get over these images. I knew then that Shadows of the Lynching Tree would be my next work.
There are three basic strands that form the foundation of Shadows of the Lynching Tree - historical - mythical - contemporary. First is the historical fact of the Waco Horror: The lynching of Jesse Washington. The documentation of this story shows that more than 15,000 people closed their shops, abandoned their farms, and brought their families to take pleasure in the killing of this boy. The second strand evolves from James Baldwin’s short story “Going to meet the Man,” in which a second boy named Jesse is taken by his father to a lynching. The third and perhaps anachronistic element grew from the candidacy of President Barack Obama. As Obama gained more traction in the general electorate, certain quarters of the country formed a more resolute opposition.