DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN?
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, 2017, USA, 90 min, Digital)
Travis Wilkerson in attendance!
Adapted from a successful performance, Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder who Fired the Gun? follows the filmmaker's previous examinations of abuses of power in the United States of America with a turn inward. Told though a mix of archival and original footage, Wilkerson excavates his own family history, focusing upon the murder of a black man by his white great-grandfather in 1946.
An unflinching image of America through an isolated, but easily replicated story, the film traces Wilkerson’s historical research and travel to his family’s southern home, while making room for intrusions from an all-too-similar present. Refuting sensationalism, saviourism, and trends in true crime storytelling, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? instead responds to Harper Lee and violent white supremacy in the United States with focus and urgency.
Tuesday 11 December 2018
Doors 6:30 PM | Screening 7:00 PM
$7 General Admission | $5 Students
Jackman Hall (317 Dundas St W.) - McCaul Street Entrance
A chance meeting in Havana with legendary Cuban film propagandist Santiago Alvarez changed the course of Travis Wilkerson's life. He now makes films in the tradition of the “third cinema,” wedding politics to form in an indivisible manner. In 2015, Sight & Sound called Wilkerson “the political conscience of American cinema.” His films have screened at scores of venues and festivals worldwide, including Sundance, Toronto, Locarno, Rotterdam, Vienna, Yamagata, the FID Marseille and the Musée du Louvre. His best-known work is an agit-prop essay on the lynching of Wobbly Frank Little called “An Injury to One," named one of the best avant-garde films of the decade by Film Comment. His most recent fiction feature, “Machine Gun or Typewriter?” premiered at Locarno 2015 and was awarded Best International Feature at DokuFest (Kosovo). His writings on film have appeared in Cineaste, Kino!, and Senses of Cinema. He has taught filmmaking at the University of Colorado and Film Directing at CalArts, and was the inaugural Visiting Fellow of Media Praxis in the Pomona College Media Guild. Presently, he is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film at Vassar College. He is also the founding Editor of Now: A Journal of Urgent Praxis.
Sarah-Tai Black is a film programmer and arts writer living and working in Toronto, Ontario. She is the Programming Coordinator at Images Festival and works as a member of TIFF’s festival programming team. She is also one of the Directors at The Royal Cinema where she programs a monthly series called Black Gold. Her writing has been published by numerous outlets, including The Globe and Mail, Cinema Scope, and MUBI Notebook. She has spoken about film and moving image arts in their many forms on platforms such as The Walrus and Huffington Post. As a programmer she has served as a juror on behalf of Inside Out LGBT Film Festival and BlackStar Film Festival, and partnered with several local arts organizations and initiatives including TIFF Cinematheque, Inside Out, and Regent Park Film Festival. She is committed to intersectional feminist practices within the arts and her work focuses heavily on the representation and experiences of black, queer, and body positive communities.
Which Side Are You On?:
On Whiteness, Knowing, and History in Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
By Sarah-Tai Black
Here’s the thing about wondering. ‘To wonder,’ of course, is not entirely ‘to know.’ It’s ‘to think’ in expanded form—to follow the preconceived limits and prescribed boundaries of completist thought until you are outside of it, looking back and all around you. It doesn’t carry the same urgency or sense of duty as ‘to investigate’, which has an air of resoluteness to it that hints at a demand for inquiry. ‘To wonder’ is its more subtle familial, signalling, more often than not, an introspective and personal form of curiosity. And curiosity, as we all know, isn’t always innocent.
What I know about politically-minded director Travis Wilkerson’s newest documentary, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, is that he has protracted wondering into an arresting cinematic form. I know that Wilkerson’s film is an undeniable phenomenological feat that captures in both image and sound the circuitous nature of whiteness as a subject position, as a history, as a form of knowledge and space-making.
An amalgamation of archival still and moving photography, letters, interviews, landscapes, music, and voice-over, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? follows Wilkerson as he attempts to piece together the details surrounding the killing of Bill Spann, a middle-aged black man, by his great grandfather, a white man named S.E. Branch.
The gun that was used by Branch to murder Spann in cold blood in 1946 was one that the filmmaker himself had later come to practice shooting with as a young boy. This gun is a useful symbol of the intergenerational memory of white violence that has been passed down to Wilkerson, and one gets the impression that his search for its evidence is penance for his own inheritance of it. With this family history Wilkerson wonders the limits of what he knows and how he knows it.
This a film about the brutality of whiteness and white cultural memory and, thus, it is a film about white guilt. This is not entirely a bad thing. This would be if Wilkerson had tracked down the present-day Spann family and re-opened a traumatic wound he had no right to open. But he is better than that; or at least, he has positioned himself as better than that.
It’s not hard to be better than that when your great grandfather was a serial abuser of women, both black and white, and a murderer of black men, someone who impersonated a doctor so as to perform “medical care” on poor, rural black Americans. It’s not hard to be better than that when your Aunt Jean is an active, organized white supremacist. Wilkerson is poised as the point of identification and moral compass of the film, but only through a lack of decent competition.
To be fair, this isn’t really something that Wilkerson can help. He is a white man publicly wondering about his white history and that is what his film is about. This history is inherently connected to him and continues to live on through him by virtue of the historical imbalance of power to violence that came before him and, indeed, welcomed him into this world. He was guilty before he even came to be. This is the white guilt I speak of and, more importantly, the privilege that Wilkerson is the first to acknowledge. He is dedicated to unearthing the violent whiteness that led to the death of Bill Spann. The violent whiteness that leads to himself.
Bill Spann’s body is buried in an unmarked grave. This is just one of multiple pieces of crucial information provided clandestinely to the filmmaker by black members of the communities he travels through. Wilkerson’s whiteness does not buy him easy access to this kind of knowledge when this kind of knowledge is directly connected to wondering about the violence of whiteness itself. His peers refuse to submit to this questioning, this audit of their historical space. They do not want to be investigated and they do not want to be wondered about.
Wilkerson’s wondering is tempered by the histories of the spaces he moves through. He takes us through the violent whiteness enacted on Recy Taylor and Taylor’s connection to Rosa Parks. He wonders if people know about these black women and the sexualized violence that has further rooted their bodies in history. He wonders if people know that Parks has an activist legacy outside of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. White people are unable to show him where Park’s childhood home is located, but he finds a young black man who immediately points him in the right direction. For white people like Wilkerson, these are the kind of spaces that have to be wondered about to be known.
His use of materials and histories is fascinating in as much as it is an imprint of white consciousness. In trying to deconstruct the violence of whiteness that preceded him, he assembles a web of interconnected histories and narratives, jumping from To Kill A Mockingbird to secession politics to Billie Holiday to Freddie Gray. These combine and leave layered traces as they pass through the film, informing each other in as much as they relate to white violence and black bodies. What some might see as circuitous narrative I see as indicative of the troubled base upon which white ways of knowing have grown and of which this film is, above all, a successful study. I don’t offer this as a critique in the traditional sense, but rather to emphasize that this is the exact way in which white subjectivity has enacted itself through history: whiteness takes, often times, indiscriminately, in order to make sense of itself. What Wilkerson has done with Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is problematize white consciousness through naming it as his own.
Still, I wonder if he knows that Billie Holiday’s performance of ‘Strange Fruit’ isn’t his to manipulate, reversing and slowing it down as he does, placing the deteriorated image of her performance within shots of some ominous-looking trees. Does he wonder if his audience will recognize the tenor and capacity of Black Lives Matter’s call and response chants in ‘Hell You Talmbout,’ a song he uses liberally throughout the film? Because I wonder if his audience has ever had to chant. But most of all, I wonder if Wilkerson realizes that utilizing radical embodied blackness as a formal device is much different than utilizing black history as a narrative one. I wonder if he realizes that in doing so he has appropriated our resistance as aesthetic methodology and further interpolated whiteness into our most radical forms. I wonder to what extent he realizes that we have always known and never had to wonder.