Interviews

A Filmmaker Investigates the Racially Charged Murder His Great-Grandfather Committed

Travis Wilkerson speaks about his film Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, which traces his great-grandfather’s killing of an unarmed African-American man.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (image courtesy Travis Wilkerson)

After the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the filmmaker Travis Wilkerson began thinking more and more about a family legend. In 1946, S.E. Branch — the great-grandfather everybody told Wilkerson he resembled as a child — shot and killed Bill Spann, an unarmed African-American man. The reason why remains a mystery. Branch was charged with first-degree murder, but somehow the charges disappeared. Equipped with a variety of materials — a newspaper clipping about the murder, old home movies, Spann’s death certificate, stories from neighbors and relatives — Wilkerson brought his camera down to Dothan, Alabama to begin facing what happened all those years before.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, which will screen on September 29 and October 1 as part of the New York Film Festival, is more than a cold-case investigation. Wilkerson is less concerned with the process of gathering information than in confronting the emotional impact this story has had beyond his family. When he attempts to find where Spann was buried, the information cannot be found. His journey breaks off to include an interview with Ed Vaughn, a local civil rights activist, which leads Wilkerson to detail the forgotten nearby roots of Rosa Parks’s early activism. What he follows is a societal cycle of purposeful forgetting, of which Wilkerson does not removes himself, that continues today. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is necessarily polemical in a way few other films are at the moment.

In a recent conversation, Wilkerson talked about the ambivalence he sometimes felt while telling this story, the struggle of working with a limited amount of factual evidence, and how he dealt with a story that offers no catharsis.

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Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (image courtesy Travis Wilkerson)

Craig Hubert: Did you have hesitations about making this film?

Travis Wilkerson: Sure. Whenever I work on something it usually begins with some kind of a question I want to ask, and I don’t necessarily know if it will develop into a project. But I have also been making films for long enough that it often does. So I’m always thinking of what the larger ramifications will be for me and my family, for individual relationships. A number of times while I was involved in it I had really ambivalent feelings about it at those moments as well. There were moments where I felt a critical language directed toward me in terms of the sense of being disloyal to the family, so to speak, really stung and made me think about what I was doing. But I would also talk it out with other people who were involved in this process — my mom, my siblings, one of my aunts. It always felt like the most loyal thing I could do in regards to the family was to be sincere and honest about what I believed in and what I thought was right and wrong. That was an expression of fidelity to family values too, even if they were not always enacted as such.

CH: At the beginning of the process of making this film, did you have a place you felt you needed to arrive at?

TW: When I undertake a project, and I’m conscious at a certain moment that I’m working on a project, I always think it’s important and very ethical to have a fairly clear sense of what you’re developing, altering, and pivoting, but nonetheless a genuine position on what you’re making. I don’t think to hide behind a project in terms of one’s intent or views is a more ethical position at all. So I definitely had a notion that I wished to have a critical outlook.

But at the same time, I go where the project takes me. I may have a view about that journey, I may have a critical outlook to the journey, but I definitely try for it to be a journey. And this film, more than any other, by far, the chronology is accurate to the process more or less. There are of course small licenses taken for storytelling purposes. But fundamentally it follows the chronology of the experience, from a real lack of awareness to all of the facts I’m ever able to gain, which is fairly early on, to the power of the emptiness.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (image courtesy Travis Wilkerson)

CH: The film deals with the absence of facts about what your great-grandfather did in really interesting ways. Can you talk about the balance between what is there and what is not?

The most important piece of evidence was the original newspaper article, which is the closest that we get to any kind of formal accusation, so to speak, with any kind of narrative account [of the murder]. Then there is the death certificate of the person who was killed, which has a lot of numbers and facts, a lot of specific things that ended up shaping where I went and what I tried to find. Beyond that, there were not many other facts to uncover. People were either not willing to share them or they had been erased. I encounter this in every single project I’ve done because I’m interested in certain marginalized or neglected or forgotten pieces of history that I think are significant. I think we have a naive notion about how much facticity and how much documentary evidence of things really exist, especially if they were really suppressed or oppressed. What I encounter over and over again is that there is a tremendous absence of information, and then what we can do with that absence is try to make sense of the absence itself, use the absence as a form of evidence.

CH: Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? was originally presented as a live performance. I’m curious why you initially decided on that form for this project, how it came to be a single-channel video (the way I watched it), and some of the changes that occurred during that transition.

I came to the project in a very roundabout way. I had received a grant from Creative Capital to work on this project and they have a central element in their process where, on two different occasions, you come to what they call retreats and you’re one of some 20 to 40 different artists, maybe even slightly more than that, who present these seven-minute excerpts of their work. They prefer some version of live sharing with images accompanying as opposed to simply showing a clip from a film, for example. And when I went to it and started watching others, I quickly realized why — in that room, with a person sharing, in the same physical space as you, it had a different electric charge than the people who were showing a clip and sitting down. It had a completely different presence. So on the first retreat, I had prepared a short little voice over and at a certain point, I got emotional. It was the first time I had even presented the project in any kind of context publically, and I was in this big room with all these people. I started spontaneously leading those who would participate in a chant of the man’s name who was killed, Bill Spann. It was very abrupt and I don’t even know now what lead me to do it, but as soon as I sat down, I knew it did something different. It’s a different kind of commitment on the part of the artist to be in the room and make the proclamation with sincerity.

The following year, I had to do it again. I planned to just show a clip, but the audio didn’t work because of some mistake I made while uploading her material. I had to make a voice over again, but this time without any notes. It was completely spontaneous, and it had, again, this effect of opening it up for me. So then I thought, let’s see what happens if I try to do the entire thing that way. I did it at a few film festivals, where it was closer to two hours and physically very, very tiring. It’s tiring and weird and you feel embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t enjoy it at all; I found it very humbling and humiliating. I turned to the single-channel version simply because there was no way for me to keep doing it like that. It was the only way for me to disseminate it more broadly. I think the film does its own thing and gives people a little more space to get frustrated and disagree because I’m not in the room and challenging them. It’s more open to the viewer, perhaps, but less charged.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (image courtesy Travis Wilkerson)

 

CH: Since the project has been completed have your thoughts about what happened changed in any way? Not a moment of catharsis — the film is clear that no such moment can occur — but some kind of new understanding?

No, not really. I’m really touched that people are moved by the story, as much as they have been because it does have a confrontational element. The issue of catharsis I thought about a lot because, I thought, what happens if I do encounter people who want to talk to me from the family and they are really kind? And we have this moment on screen where there’s this healing? I thought, well, if that happens it would be beautiful and I would embrace it. But I didn’t want to depend on it because that also seemed in a way false to all of these other incidents that don’t have any catharsis. What is the catharsis anyway? Someone in my family, more or less, destroyed another family. How can I possibly calculate what the healing can be out of that except for the gesture of saying that it was wrong and hope trying to stop it from happening again? Which, obviously, is not happening at all. How can I be a positive presence in the world as a member of this family? I don’t feel like I’ve solved that puzzle yet.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is screening at the New York Film Festival at the Film Society at Lincoln Center (165 West 65th St, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on September 29 and October 1.

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