Parts of the frame

My job as an editor is to gently prod the attention of the audience to look at various parts of the frame. And that – I do that by manipulating how and where I cut and what succession of images I work with.

Walter Murch

In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve been editing Passing Grounds, these first stages are all about watching the footage I’ve collected over the 10 weeks of filming. I conceptualized the film, and made somewhat binding rules on the film — necessary constraints to allow my attention and interrogations of the subject matter to breathe in and breathe out, so that film would grow on it’s own. Now, as I stare at the footage, noting anything from my filming habits (mumbling to myself), to my style of interactions with strangers (usually one out of humility), I’m scared.

That fear is natural. It’s comprised of every conversation that every artist/cultural producer has with their inner critic. It speaks of your impending failures for the weakness of your method, speaks to the gap between intention and execution.

So, to assuage these fears, I do several things: I write, call, groan in anxiety to my friends, and family. I step away from the footage, letting my eyes rest. Also, and maybe somewhat unconventionally, I read.

I read graphic novels/comic books, sometimes I’ll read a film book (usually I read film texts during pre-production), but I focus my energies on texts that I feel are thematic kins to Passing Grounds. Most recently, I’ve been reading (and re-reading) Ta-Nehisi Coates’, Between the World and Me, and Jeff Chang’s Who We Be: The Colorization of America

I’ll be reading more for sure, but I’ve been calmed by what Coates has to reveal to his son, and Chang’s framing of seeing America is helping me see deeply into the long takes of Kajieme Powell’s memorial, or Adrian Parra’s non-memorial.

In effort to keep this entry short, I’ll simply ask you to review what attorney and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness, another must read) has to say about Between the World and MeAlso, peep these pieces on Jeff Chang’s Who We Be.

Ferguson, Saratoga Springs, San Diego, and San Jose, Part Two.

KJ, Darrien's younger brother. He takes me on the last walk that brother took on the day Darrien died.

KJ, Darrien’s younger brother. He took me on the last walk that his brother took on the day Darrien died.

10/2015 – 12/2015

I made it to 35.

I say that with humility, without irony, or jest—knowing that I have peers that have had their lives rerouted, or cut short altogether.

I’ve been blessed by opportunities, and unyielding support from my family, from Jessica, from my friends.

The faith that my peers have in my abilities is something I try to remember daily and hold close.

But the melancholy doesn’t seem to subside. Perhaps it’s choosing to constantly look at struggle, or maybe it’s the tenacity of hope that calls attention to how far we’ve come as Americans, and how very far we’ve left to go.

I’ve been having trouble thinking about how to frame, and write about the last pair of families that I’ve visited for Passing Grounds.

There’s the family of Darrien Hunt. 22 years old. African American, Caucasian. A handsome fellow, deeply passionate about his family, anime, and hip hop from the ilk of Immortal Technique, and Tech N9ne. He died running from Saratoga Springs Police in Utah.

The family of Ja Ma Lo Day. 21 years old. Karen Burmese, a refugee. Ja Ma lived with his sister in an apartment building complex with refugees from different parts of southeast Asia. Deeply into Tupac Shakur and video games. He died in his sister’s apartment in San Diego.

The difficulty in writing about these final experiences have everything to do with the facts presented to me, carried by the heft of the heart and soul of Darrien’s and Ja Ma’s families. Susan Hunt, Darrien’s mother, who welcomed me into her home brought me closest to my limitations as an individual, filmmaker/artist or otherwise—with her anguish washed over me in our first physical meeting. I watched her face express an inexplicable amount of pain and anger, and in turn, I looked helpless and hapless, grasping at her ruptured world, an experience and grief that could never be repaired by this film. Not that I set out to do so, but the impact documentary work, or any storytelling form, is often held unaccountable—and I could not account as to whether or not the film I was doing would ever come close to transferring her pain unto an audience.

In silence, I sat.

My tears held back, only because it would be unfair to burden her any more.

Darrien Hunt. 1413 North Redwood Road. Saratoga Springs, Utah.

Darrien Hunt. 1413 North Redwood Road. Saratoga Springs, Utah.

I gripped the same silence when I listened to Ja Ma’s cousin, a young man of 13 years, who translated his aunt’s words for me, as the camera rolled in the humble two bedroom apartment. The complex seemed to house recent immigrants from southeast Asia, many would walk by while we recorded, curious, but never hostile. The space was familiar—it bore the same qualities of the home I grew up in when I first moved to San Diego with my family. At the time we moved in, our home made due with whatever a home could be with a full-time mother and a full-time father out to work. It carried the essence of how my mom and dad grew up in the Philippines, a space with qualities of improvisation, to create the illusion of completeness. Ja Ma’s sister’s apartment carried those same elements—with the large area rugs, an aged wooden stool, barely 8 inches high to support you in seated position as you prep cooked, the bright colors of diaphanous fabrics, pregnant by a distant ocean breeze. Ja Ma was afflicted with bipolar disorder, and would often stray from his schedule of taking his medications. A week long without medicine contributed to his death, and the propensity for violence and an abysmal lack of mental health services attached to law enforcement would be the more significant factor in Ja Ma’s death. Ja Ma’s cousin explained that they often recited Tupac lyrics, often played video games. Ja Ma’s teen cousin pointed to the part of the carpet where Ja Ma lay, the area rug they put down covered the blood stains—a final effort by the family to keep the space clean, after having to clean the floor and walls themselves. They still seek answers, but it’s difficult to tell if they’re angry. I’m not sure how to process that expression of grief.


So the camera documents. With an objective, scientific eye the camera seeks out these spaces of loss, spaces to be remembered, and recalled. The frame of these images are silent, sometimes unbearably so, because they remain, and they are real. As of this writing, more sites spring up. Our exhaustion, our indignation is undeniable, and the conversations that ebb and flow from these sentiments point to the need for resolution, be it revolution, but never resignation. Our society may have seemed static, but the human rights violations that occur on our shores are being reckoned with, it seems that no one can stand idly by, more now than ever.

I sit with this footage now, and will spend the next several months editing, and raising funds for it (however, if you’re interested in donating now, which I totally and humbly encourage—please feel free to email me rj.lozada@gmail.com). I’ll come up for air occasionally, and I’ll see you around.

Ferguson and Saratoga Springs and San Jose, Part one.

Michael O.D. Brown. 2943 - 2947 Canfield Drive. Ferguson, Missouri.

Michael O.D. Brown. 2943 – 2947 Canfield Drive. Ferguson, Missouri.

How else to get attention for one’s product or one’s art? How else to make a dent when there is incessant exposure to images, and overexposure to a handful of images seen again and again? The image as shock and the image as cliche are two aspects of the same presence.

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag.

9/28 – 10/3/15

Michael O.D. Brown.

VonDerritt Myers, Jr.

Kajieme A. Powell.

St. Louis and it’s nearby municipality, Ferguson, saw three deaths in the span of two months. The air is different here, you don’t smell gun smoke or teargas anymore, it’s been several weeks since Michael Brown’s death anniversary. The air is slightly crisp, leaves are turning and beginning to fall from trees.

The deaths of these young men were expressions of the disparities long set by racism, aggravated by the confounding local governmental structure of municipalities–everyone I’d run into would smirk at my effort to ask for clarity of how the local government or governments run.

A unique marker to St. Louis and it’s surrounding areas is the endurance of movement workers keeping the names of Brown, Myers, Powell, and so many others, alive. Whether through daily protest (you can get alerts if you text ‘Fergnow’ to 23559) at the Jennings Police Department, or modestly attend meetings updating community members of developments in investigations or justified lawsuits–the communities are dialed in, the communities are committed.

Yet there are those that are still outside, or perhaps ignore, the work around them. Whole groups of people that don’t volunteer their time and efforts. That somehow pass by the intersection of Shaw and Klemm without paying any mind.

 

VonDerrit Myers, Jr. 4178 Shaw Boulevard. St. Louis, Missouri. #BlackLivesMatter #PassingGrounds

A post shared by R.J. Lozada (@eyelidrjl) on

 

 

 

As if these improvised markers fold into concrete, and facades of homes within the neighborhood. Sometimes residents wish these markers away, not for the pain they represent, but the inconvenience to their commutes. Disagreeable as this sentiment is, it’s a valid one, that brings up conversation of life beyond collective grief, happening in coffeeshops like MoKaBe’s, or behind closed doors.

Collaborations, and otherwise.

...at Tamir Rice's spot.

…at Tamir Rice’s spot.

9/22 – 9/26/15

Seeking out collaboration in this project has been difficult.

Not because of the weight of grief, open investigations, or other legal matters, but because my scheduling has been so compact — I’m in and out of a location in a few days, sometimes less than an hour.*

When I do get to collaborate, a whole set of new rules and issues come into play.

The film has been about/in/around spaces more than it is about people. However, in the instances of the film when people emerge or become involved, the film becomes even more…something. The spaces are activated, and the actions of whomever exists within the space can carry a different meaning….at least that’s what is intended.

...at Cudell Commons Park.

…at Cudell Commons Park.

Tamir Rice. Cudell Commons Park. Cleveland, Ohio. #BlackLivesMatter #PassingGrounds

A post shared by R.J. Lozada (@eyelidrjl) on

*Often I’m unable to reach any representative of the decedents home, and on rare occasion that I do, only a few are willing to collaborate.

I don’t think it’s a failing of the film, in fact, I think the lacking of participation or access to family is part and parcel of what makes this film work.

At the inception of the project, I wanted to hinge formal dealings and questions on the idea of presenting or aestheticizing grief, or grappling with the limitations of documentary. I am no Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, or Davis Guggenheim (nor do I have those kinds of resources and privilege).

This film isn’t an explicit rallying cry in the tradition of the filmmakers above, but rather, an attempt at somehow documenting a range of things/feelings: from culpability, complicity, helplessness, distance, time, and frustration.

I don’t perceive this frustration to be a flaw, but almost a kind of moral choice.

As if to suggest value in the technical limitation of the medium. That navigating state violence and racial legacies cannot be undone in one film, and truly accepting that may shift the burden of representation into something….more…..

I’m rambling at this point, but thankfully the film doesn’t. It’s not laden with experts or police or advocates pontificating. In our age of online access to information, it sometimes becomes important to strip that all away, to remove that didacticism that we’re so accustomed to for orientation.

Stripping the film of those elements shifts the burden of work unto the audience.

I drove the miles,

meditated on every galloon of gas being burned,

let myself run the gamut of emotions when I arrive at my destination:

anger

resentment

grief

nausea

impotence

agitation.

I want you to experience the same without anyone on screen telling you to do so.

There’s quite a bit of storytelling risk in doing that….

But I’m learning a lot about storytelling and documentary form.

I’m learning what it is to watch, what it is to listen, to not speak, to be able to only show…so….much.

On silence, on not-seeing.

Jaineshia.

9/16 – 9/18/15

Latandra Ellington.

Regina Cooper.

Affricka G. Jean.

Michelle Tierney.

These four women died under suspicious circumstances while serving time at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida. The prison has a long standing history of abuse and corruption, with little recourse for justice for the women behind bars and their families.

This is the case with Latandra Ellington’s family.

I met with Latandra Ellington’s 19 year old daughter, Jaineshia (pictured above). She’s currently a second year undergraduate studying education at Florida A&M. She was brave enough to share some of her time with me for this film, but again, I found myself grappling with responsibility to represent grief and loss.

I never was comfortable with prying, poking, or cajoling for a certain soundbite, as if I or audiences could appreciate words that could carry years of relationship in about 5 seconds. Nah. Without the camera on, she told me how she hasn’t been able to process her loss, hasn’t been able to talk with many people about it — so in this way, I didn’t see myself as the proper person to help her articulate her profound loss.

As an alternative, I pivoted towards silence.

To expand, Jaineshia bears her mother’s narrative on her body, on her face. So I asked her if it would be okay to sit in some silence, and that I record it. I talked her through, invited her to meditate on the memories of her mother, to bring her grief to the surface. We sat for something like 10 minutes — only with the hum of the air conditioning unit to recenter the moment, a drown out whatever yells, cries, whispers were happening behind her downcast eyes.

To sit with her, to know some of the facts surrounding her mother’s death, and to know that this film could only do so much.

I can only sit and stare, only know so much.

Somehow that is enough.

Somehow that is not enough.

**

The Lowell Correctional Institution, is within a 3-5 mile radius of institutions and enforcement spaces — juvenile facility, fireman school, police shooting range — that made it all incredibly difficult to even attempt to film. Had there been public property, or a nearby neighborhood that seemed outside of that bubble, and that kind of energy field, then I could film it, but nothing nowhere within visual proximity, not even a hard shoulder on the side of the road. I even tried to stop near the shooting range, across the highway from LCI but every driver that passed by locked eyes with me in that way…and it was always slightly arresting.

So, rather than taking any legal risk for myself and the film, I tried my hand at asking for permission from LCI main office. Walking into the area was like swimming into the jaws of a shark. I know I wasn’t at particular risk, but having an understanding of the ominous culture of LCI and the various stories reported and even more that are hidden from public eye, enshrouded in bureaucracy, and a tacit agreement with our [democratic] society…that shit was heavy.

I left the main office being denied permission, no documentation was allowed, even journalists had to get permission to take photographs of the sign, well outside the bounds.

No image does not mean no reality.

 

For more information on Latandra Ellington’s story and Lowell Correctional Institution read Miami Herald’s article here.

Omissions and revisions.

50 Kirkglen Loop, Houma, Louisiana

50 Kirkglen Loop, Houma, Louisiana

9/8 – 9/10/15

Cameron Tillman, aged 14, died in Houma, Louisiana. He was shot at the doorstep of a longtime abandoned home in the neighborhood he lived in—the abandoned home was a haven for the neighborhood youth. As I was filming in the rain with my camera trained on the abandoned home, a gentleman came up to me—admitted that back in his day (which could have been 5-7 years ago), that home was used as a gathering spot for slanging, playing dice, and other shenanigans, but not ever known to be a locus for gun violence. According to him, it was a neighbor who might have been fed up, might have been something other than willing to a take step out of his home and walk over half a block away to just ask. Rather, that individual called the police, reporting that some youth had gone into the abandoned home with a gun. A policeman responds to the call, and as young Cameron opens the door, the policeman begins firing. The officer claimed to have seen a gun in Cameron’s hand, however conflicting accounts from Cameron’s friends at the scene said that the gun wasn’t anywhere near Cameron’s hand, and it was a BB gun at that. By the way, Louisiana is an open carry state—so there’s already a cultural accepting with guns. Even if Cameron was too young to legally carry, shouldn’t have the course of action been one of dialogue and questioning by the police officer?

Houma is a small town, and unlike larger hubs like Ferguson, New York, there isn’t the same critical mass, but there will be a memorial vigil by community members next month. Cameron’s family is still grieving and will not participate.

Victor White III died in the back of a Sheriff’s office patrol car in the center of New Iberia on March 2, 2014. You can read the official story, the criticisms around the official story, and provide support through the family’s website at justiceforvic.com

The Sheriff’s office sits in the center of the city, marked with different placards, commemorating important moments in New Iberia’s establishment by a group of Spaniards from Malaga in 1779, and after the Louisiana Purchase, New Iberia became official in 1814 when the federal government opened up the city’s first post office. One placard in the courtyard is dedicated to Fèlicité, a Haitian woman, who was immune to yellow fever when it struck New Iberia in the fall of 1839. She tended to masters and slaves alike—everything from administering care, to minding logistics for burials. She died in 1852, her wake taking place at Frederick Duperier’s home (her master), “where both races paid their last respects for her.” (They Tasted Bayou Water, by Maurine Bergerie).

Ironic, to film the placard within the vicinity where Victor died.

Necessary, to film that placard.

As if Félicité, could rise above her station in life by the exclusion of that word: slave. That particular omission and revision acknowledges her dignity, but denies reality. Félicité is revered for her enduring kindness, and great capacity to work under duress. If you could transcend the social conditions during incredible crisis, then you are more human, and will be immortalized.

Yet, this somehow cannot be the case of the millions of enslaved that lived a very similar life as Félicité…didn’t slaves transcend their conditions every day they survived?

Why is the way we commemorate slavery’s legacy one that denies rectification, one that denies healing?

I’m speaking beyond placards, and museums—but demanding a paradigm shift, anything and everything from rectifying the criminalization of Blacks. To going even further, and reconsider reparations, and one of the more revolutionary, but still sensible solutions: abolishing the prison system altogether.

In a future like that, maybe Cameron Tillman’s neighbors wouldn’t have called the police, and maybe the abandoned home would’ve been an established communal site. Maybe then Victor White III wouldn’t have been arrested, maybe he would have pursued his education, begin his blue collar career to help raise his new family (his girlfriend is due with his child this year)—and continue his already forward trajectory as a productive member of society, as a human.

Unfamiliar sadness.

Great sadnesses … they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke*

9/7/15

I arrived at the neighborhood where Jeremey Lake was shot, residential neighborhood just on the outer rim of downtown Tulsa—and the neighborhood was a little on the rough side, homes looked like they were in disrepair. Others were defensive, with visible ‘No Tresspassing,’ sign on barred windows. I found the location I needed to be  from the photos on 19 year-old Jeremy Lake’s memorial page, but it had looked abandoned, the weed outgrowth was waist-high, the windows broken — taped up and covered with no way to peer inside. The porch had no chairs.

I was nervous, but still hopeful. I knocked and immediately a small dog barked wildly. I waited and heard light steps. After the dog had calmed, I knocked once more — perhaps the person responsible for the steps hadn’t heard me knocking. This time, a gravelly-slightly hoarse voice yelled through the door:

“WHO IS IT?!”

“HI. I DROVE FROM CALIFORNIA TO PAY MY RESPECTS TO JEREMEY’S FAMILY!”

“…HOLD ON!”

The door cracked open. I saw a grey-blue eye, made out dusky skin, the woman was carrying the small dog.

“Who are you?” she asks.

I explain myself. The road trip. The project. The process. Reading about Jeremey.

She puts the dog down, steps outside, closing the door behind her. Apologizes, explains that you don’t open the front door in this kind of neighborhood. She introduces herself as Pam Wilkins, Jeremey’s aunt and spokesperson for the household.

Our conversation was mostly me listening. I learned about Jeremey’s rough upbringing, she wouldn’t call it rough, and maybe it wasn’t, but it wasn’t something I was familiar with—he had grown up without his father, and his mother was under constant care and assisted living. Jeremey had grown up in a local boys home for most of his life, and at 18, left the boys’ home and lived with his Aunt. His mother also left assisted living after 5-6 years. She has a brain condition—her memories were never permanent, and it was getting worse over time. At that moment, Jeremey’s mother shuffled out. I didn’t recognize her at first. I remember seeing her in the news around the time of Jeremey’s death last year. On the broadcast, she seemed like any mother—angry, wanting answers, wanting justice.

The woman in front of me was different.

She was thankful, but it also looked like she wasn’t sure what she why she was thanking me. Her eyes carried a stare that didn’t connect. Grief carries a certain heft, and those that wield it are somehow reconditioned to bear it. Whether deftly or clumsily, always with passion. It’s a presence that exudes and demands another level of respect—something that feels mystifying, drawing you in, but distancing all at once.

I can barely articulate it.

She sat outside on the porch with us, as Aunt Pam continued to elaborate.  She described Jeremey as a 6-foot-4 “teddy bear,” a person with a certain intimidating swagger, but generous in spirit and action. She told me, how in past Tulsa had changed it’s welfare policies, almost creating an open door to the homeless, encouraging many to come and find refuge with Tulsa’s resources. Aunt Pam talked about how dozens came by the busload. While Tulsa encouraged this, eventually the infrastructure fell apart, and the homeless population had to find new dwellings around Tulsa. Aunt Pam talked about a homeless community in her backyard and how Jeremey would visit often, making sure people were okay. She shared anecdotes–one of him being a first responder to a homeless woman stabbed by another homeless man, and how he took the shirt off his own back to apply pressure to the wound, with his other hand on the phone, calling for the paramedics.

Jeremey had passed an exam that would allow him to enter wielding school. He also recently had a child with an ex-girlfriend — and while he wasn’t with her, he felt excited at the prospect of fatherhood.

At the end, he had died while he was in love.

He had died trying to make peace between a father and daughter.

He had died because the off duty officer was opening fire upon Jeremy and at his very own daughter.

Maybe it was the 100-degree heat, maybe it was the driving getting to me, maybe I was homesick. Maybe I could relate to being generous, relate to having good intentions and being misunderstood.

Maybe it all just sucked. Another young man, another senseless loss. This one particularly egregious. If you seek out photos of the officer, you’ll find him smiling. Smiling. The trial has only gone into prelims.

I felt bad for Jeremey. For Aunt Pam. For Jeremey’s son, who turns one in November.

Jeremey’s story nearly cracked me open. Aunt Pam saw this, and as we stood in front of the curb where his body lay, she held me.

 

Jeremey Lake, 19. 202 North Maybelle Ave., Tulsa, OK.

Jeremey Lake, 19. 202 North Maybelle Ave., Tulsa, OK.

 

*For a good read on Rilke and sadness, check out Brainpicking article: Rilke on How Great Sadness Brings Us Closer to Ourselves.

On waiting

If the shot unexpectedly remains on the screen without further developments, we may feel impatience or annoyance, during which we perhaps look away or withdraw our attention. If the shot continues still longer we may move to a third stage of what might be called “digressive search,” when we begin to bring a very different and more idiosyncratic kind of interpretive process to bear upon the shot. Audiences, however, are generally asked to stretch the rules only so far. And when they are asked to do so they are usually offered compensations.

When Less is Less: The Long Take in Documentary, David MacDougall.

9/6/15

I filmed at the Lawton Police Station, where Christina Tahhahwah was jailed and died under mysterious circumstances in November of 2014.

At the time of her passing, Ms. Tahhahwah, was survived by her mother, Lora Tahhahwah, her sister, Chivon Tahhahwah, and an extended family stretching for several generations.

Before filming, I was set to meet the Tahhahwah family, and speak with Lora about her daughter, sadly she had passed away just days before I was scheduled to arrive.

With the support of Christina’s aunt, Martina Minthorn-Callahan, I attended the funereal services at the Comanche Nation Tribal Complex. The sight was somber, Lora lay at peace in her casket, surrounded by loved ones. Comanche hymns carried through the large hall, and I counted on my fingers the time between Lora’s passing and Christina’s passing–nine months. Poetic. Lora had died from a mother’s broken heart.

Ms. Christina Tahahwah passed at the Lawton Police Station, where she was held for trespassing on her grandfather’s property. However, most accounts online, and family members will tell you that Ms. Tahhahwah was battling depression and was also diagnosed as being bipolar, her usual medications kept her calm, but kept her extremely sedated. Ms. Tahhahwah had chosen to wean herself off her medication, so that she could be awake and aware enough to be present with her family in Lawton. This also meant that she risked having an outburst, and that’s what happened when she visited her grandfather.

For Ms. Tahhahwah’s safety, he called for help, the Lawton police (not Comanche Nation police) came, and despite telling the police that Ms. Tahhahwah needed to go to the local mental health service provider, Ms. Tahhahwah was arrested and booked for trespassing. She was brought to the station, where she would eventually die.

The circumstances of her death remain shrouded in bureaucracy–local officials released an autopsy report that ran counter to what other inmates witnessed: that Ms. Tahhahwah, who was denied her medication and proper treatment, self-soothed by rocking herself while chanting Comanche hymns that she had learned from her grandfather. It was in this prolonged attempt at relief that the jailers tased Ms. Tahhahwah to subdue her, and then handcuff her to the cell bars. It in this period that her family suspects that she died.

With the support of Comanche tribal council, the Tahhahwah family were able to order a second-private autopsy. Results are still being held from the family.

 

Silence blanketed downtown Lawton on that Sunday morning, much like the thick humid air. I didn’t call attention to myself, as I stood yards away from the front door–I made an agreement with myself that were an officer to approach, I would be honest and explain the project. I stood outside and filmed close to two hours, waiting and trying to imagine and revisit what had happened inside, remembering Christina and her recently passed mother, Lora.

Behind the brick wall, Christina chanted. She chanted songs that brought her peace, songs that reminded her of home. Her mother, Lora, rests next to her at the Otipoby cemetery–within the boundaries of U.S. Army base, Fort Sill.

My mind kept circulating images of the early nations being overpowered and deceived by early American colonizers, soldiers. I kept thinking about the legacies of oppression and forced erasure of a whole civilization. From language, to spirituality, to land. Taken. Violently.

Ms. Christina Tahhahwah was taken violently.

I did not know what chants she sang, so I asked her grandfather, Mr. Jerome Tahhahwah, the family patriarch, what songs she might have sang and If he could share them for the film. He agreed, but corrected me, revealing that he never formally taught Christina or the other Tahhahwah children how to sing Comanche hymns–they would hear them so often that it would just catch, and if anything, he would correct them if words for mispronounced.

He said that Christina learned on her own, and surprised him when she learned to sing so quickly.

Jerome Tahhahwah

 

On looking.

Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. So the belief that remembering is an ethical act is deep in our natures as humans, who know we are going to die, and who mourn those who in the normal course of things die before us. Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag

9/1 – 9/2/15

My first site in Texas for Passing Grounds was Bastrop, at the home where Ms. Yvette Smith was murdered. I came unannounced, since I had been unable to find any contact information for Ms. Smith’s family, or her boyfriend.

I rolled up the home to find three individuals sitting around a table playing dominoes on the porch, their heads turned as they watched me approach. As luck would have it, one of the seated individuals was Mr. Willie Thomas, boyfriend of Ms. Smith.  Mr. Thomas’s home is directly across the street from the Federal Correctional Institution Bastrop, an ominous neighbor, but eerily familiar feelings came up for me, given some of my past work with San Quentin State Prison.

I walked up to Mr. Thomas, and two of his friends, and immediately and humbly announced myself–firstly, to pay my respects for the loss of Mr. Smith, and then to introduce the project. Mr. Thomas graciously agreed to talk and to let me document our conversation and the space.

Mr. Thomas recounted the events of February 16, 2014. He replayed the scenario (which matched up with what you can read here). With deep resignation, he explained that he reviewed the deputy dash cam video in the presence of attorneys, where he observed that 20 minutes of footage had been edited out–the missing 20 minutes were of Mr. Thomas attempting to talk down Bastrop County Deputy Daniel Willis. Mr. Thomas described how Deputy Willis arrived with “adrenaline coming down his face,” got on his knee, raised his rifle with a scope and demanded that the occupants exit the home. The occupants were Yvette Smith, Mr. Thomas’s son and his wife, and their three children…..

the remaining occupants wereYvette Smith, Mr. Thomas’s son and his wife, and their three children.

It was Yvette who opened the door, with no weapon in hand, and within moments was shot in the leg, towards her pelvic area. Mr. Thomas described how the bullet most likely hit an artery, causing Ms. Smith to die in the long 30 minutes it took the paramedics to arrive. With a tired air of frustration, Mr. Thomas described the insulting performance that the paramedics gave, how “all the tubes that they put in her were clean,” when they were inserted and left there… I took that to mean that there wasn’t the fog of warm breath in the intubation tubes.

Mr. Thomas allowed me inside the home. He kept apologizing for the mess, explaining that ever since Ms. Smith had passed he’d been trying to finish up the renovations that he had started for her, but he explained that in his depression that he could only get so much done in a day. The renovations are necessary so that the house on the one-acre property would be sellable, and he could finally move out.

Mr. Thomas pointed to the wooden floor, explained how her body had to be pushed aside so that the deputies and paramedics could enter the home. Mr. Thomas pointed to the top of the nearby stairwell, said how his 8 year-old grandson watched Ms. Smith open the door, get shot, and fall.

I could only listen, could only say, “I’m sorry.”

I could only turn on my camera.

Yvette Smith. 100 Block of Zimmerman Ave. Bastrop, Texas. #PassingGrounds #blacklivesmatter #sayhername

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I visited another small town in East Texas called Hearne–it’s current population is less that 5,000 people. In 2004, Hearne became the subject of a Frontline news documentary called The Pleafeaturing the stories of those that got caught up in a racist drug sweep that only revealed how vulnerable the African American community was to a system designed to exploit them, designed to profit from their poverty.

I drove to find Ms. Pearlie Golden’s home, known to her neighbors as Ms. Sully. The home stood on the other side of the railroad tracks, just yards away the blaring train horns that would intermittently call. I knew it was her home because of a small cross with fake flowers. I parked on the side of the small road, the home felt abandoned… then it looked abandoned. A small swarm of wasps were carefully maintaining their nest right above one of the entrances to the home.  There were rusted pennies on a dusty plastic table, two adult chairs, and two small cloth chairs for children, their colors faded by the elements…there were rusted pennies in the seats, too. A carport covered her red Buick, the car she was no longer allowed to drive because she failed her DMV exam at the age of 93.

Maybe driving was one of the last things that made her feel alive. 

Maybe that’s why she needed to pull out a gun and threaten her nephew, and maybe all he needed to do was just give her back the car keys.

There were keys hanging near her front door.

The red Buick became a spider’s nest, where crevices between the windows and the caverns within the body of the car could protect spiders from the elements.

I’m unsure if anyone would live there again.

 

My last location was in Houston, where Mr. Jordan Baker was profiled for being Black and wearing a hoodie. He was shot dead after a scuffle with an off-duty cop who was providing security for the strip mall. The security was evidently needed to protect the stores from a spate of break ins. Mr. Baker was on his bike late at night, and was cornered into the alley behind a Little Ceasar’s Pizza restaurant. I recorded during dinnertime, and families came and went, waiting for their Hot-N-Ready pizzas.

While there was no obvious shrine, I wondered if the four Christmas balls squeezed within the chain link fence were for Mr. Baker at some point.

No one saw me, even though I was afraid that one of the handful sirens that I heard in that 20 minute period would be screaming for me.

Jordan Baker. Alleyway of 5700 West Little York Road, Houston, Texas. #PassingGrounds #blacklivesmatter

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Road trip.

The American road trip is an excursion that encourages an experiential learning of this country’s narrative–usually the mainstream one, through important landmarks, memorials, views. By the journey’s end, new memories are made—selfies are posted, snapchats appear and disappear, and a kind of affirmation and melding between the self and America’s legacies happen…to some degree.

This is my first cross-country road trip. I started from California, and driving the southern route, ending that portion in Florida and driving up the east to the midwest, through the mountains and back home.

But I’m skipping the Grand Canyon, the Alamo, the Florida Everglades, the gateway arch of St. Louis. Skipping the Lincoln monument, the Statue of Liberty, and whatever other historical markers that have been maintained from our conquering and colonizing past.

Instead I am visiting street corners in small neighborhoods, visiting an emptied gazebo at a recreation center, an alleyway behind a strip mall, a bench outside of Starbucks, police stations, sidewalks, and the front doors of strangers.

I’m also creating a visual record of the experience. Gathering and compiling these spaces in hopes to articulate or maybe obscure what America’s narratives look like, sound like, feel like. Maybe I’ll talk to people and get them to explain the space, or it these locations may just speak for themselves.

 

The intended result will be entitled PASSING GROUNDS–a film that attempts to take a hard look at America’s identities, seen through the different sites of death at the hands of police in 2014.

It’s an exploration, it’s an homage, it’s a pilgrimage to these sites. Some are unmarked, others made semi-permanent. It will be challenging, not just because I’m still coordinating and trying to get permission to film some of these spaces, but just because there are so many, and I won’t get to all of them. The gravity of the sites may not even be obvious at first, so I may spend long periods standing there, recording. Looking, searching.

 

I’m not familiar with any of these spaces, other than the fact that someone died there, and someone, or something rather, said that it would be okay–but so many more saying that the fact that someone died there is not okay, or even if it’s just one person who doesn’t think it’s okay–it’s valuable to me to visit, and to remember what story has been put forward, and what story that hasn’t been put forward, that may never be put forward.

 

I’m currently in Texas. I’m hoping to document the sites where Yvette Smith, Pearlie Golden, and Jordan Baker passed.

If you have any questions, concerns, even words of encouragement, feel free to contact me. I’ll be alone for most of the drive, so I welcome conversation, just ask for my phone number.