“Narratives Don’t Have Lower Thirds and IDs, Why Should Documentaries?” Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté on River City Drumbeat
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River City Drumbeat

The 1937 Ohio River Flood killed 385 people and left a million more homeless. That same year, the Home Owner & # 39; s Loan Corporation (HOLC) drew redlining cards from Louisville to deny mortgage insurance and loans to the black and immigrant communities hardest hit by the flooding. In the "Clarification Notes" of one of the HOLC's area assessments, they summarized a region with a "D" rating: "This area, known as" Little Africa ". No paved roads – low population." Divestments are still crippling the West Louisville community today. The “ninth street divide”, the demarcation between West Louisville and downtown, makes the difference in life expectancy on both sides of the line clear: 82 years east of it, 67 years west of it.

Marlon Johnson's and Anne Flatté's documentary River City Drumbeat captures emotionally driven narratives within the West Louisville community's three-decade non-profit arts institution, The River City Drum Corps. Under the guidance of Ed “Nardie” White, children learn African and Afro-American history, family and cultural values ​​through music on their foundations. They build, play and learn the origins of the drums, the instrument of the heartbeat. Broader emotional areas and social contexts are slowly showing up not through manipulating devices or creative impositions, but through the well-being of people in front of the camera. Mr. White's late Ms. Zambia, once the Drum Corp's education director and now a critical influence on its teaching, is only hinted at until the Drum Corp is comfortable enough to speak of her more directly in front of the camera. In the film, she showed exactly how she was towards Johnson and Flatté during production: the film opens up to the surrounding systemic challenges of the district and only expands its scope as much as the people in front of its camera would like. Johnson and Flatté were there to listen to the movie's attendees, record them everywhere, tell their story, not assume they knew or impose their own.

Filmmaker: How did you divide up the directing duties?

Marlon Johnson: Anne and I have been working on music documentaries for a while. Our producer, Owsley Brown, is from Louisville and knew the River City Drum Corp., loved Mr. White and everything he did in the community. He invited Anne and me to meet Mr. White. We both fell instantly in love with him, his story and the great job they did (and) that it is worth investing in. Many of Mr. White's experiences are similar to my own, so I had a strong vision of his story at the beginning.

Anne Flatté: We both worked on these documentaries for a long time – not together, but in the same scenes, music communities. We met in Miami to work on a short film together and really enjoyed the experience. We are both parents, so we both have kids to raise and we know how difficult that is. Meeting Mr. White and the work he had done with the Drum Corp was really inspiring and moving for us. (With two directors) is nice when you start a documentary of this size. We started this movie in 2016 and here we are now. We were both very compatible in exploring our creative visions together and figuring out how the story would come about. We really enjoyed the process. I think it's really wonderful to share the workload and the ups and downs of a production. (laughs)

We'd meet a very small crew in Louisville. Sometimes it was both of us, sometimes Marlon, sometimes me, the DP and a healthy person. DP Juan Carlos Castaneda was just as invested in these people as we were. There was a relationship. There was also (DP) John Anderson Beaver who Marlon worked with on some filming over a period of 18 months. We went there every few weeks or days based on the Drum Corp. schedule. All editing would take place in San Francisco, where I lived. We'd work together remotely, then he'd come to San Francisco and work hard with me and the editor for a while. I think this is the way to go for documentaries.

Johnson: I've only worked with two other directors for the past 15-17 years, so this was a bit of a departure for me. It was just a blessing that she had some of the same basics as a storyteller that I had. We had mutual respect for one another, but at the same time challenged each other. It allows you to check your ego. It's not egoless, it's like having enough ego to know when to let the person guide under certain circumstances. We both have editorial backgrounds as well, which I think helped shorten our language as directors.

Filmmaker: Did you hang out with people in space before bringing a camera? Do you both have ways of approaching the initial process to gain that confidence and comfort?

Johnson: When I was first introduced to Mr. White and Albert (Mr. White's successor as director of the River City Drum Corp), There were essentially just three people talking and sharing life experiences – again so many who resonated with me. The older we get in our careers, the more it is about listening to the film's participants than just trying to get coverage. This enables people in the community to invest and do something that goes beyond simply telling a story. I wanted to listen. I believe we need to leave room for things to unfold and it's refreshing when you have a partner who works that way too.

Flatté: We spent a lot of time with Mr. White and Albert before the cameras even came. I always feel like Mr. White chose us as much as we decided to work on this film. It was a mutual choice. Marlon and I felt like this is a collaborative thing that you do when you are working on someone's life story. How could it not be? Especially when they are otherwise unknown. This is not a public figure, but a person who shares very intimate moments of their life. Of course, you have to feel like the right person to do this justice. There is a lot of communication, a lot of dinners. These are the types of films that I want to see and make. It's a little unusual. There are many different films that can be made. But here we have given our lives.

Johnson: Some of the movie's attendees actually said that after a while we disappeared. I think when we do our job as well as possible, our presence is not felt.

Flatté: We didn't want to influence it too much. Of course, we all know that a camera affects the impact on reality, but what was also fun working with Mr. White and Albert on this project was that they are both visual artists and understand the artistic process. They were really interested in what our reasons would be for doing things a certain way. They really wanted that kind of thoughtfulness to flow into their stories. It wasn't reporting or anything.

Filmmaker: Are there times when you know you should turn off the camera to maintain that confidence?

Flatté: It's a feeling that you have. It's very intuitive when you're filming. "Is it appropriate to film now?" I think Marlon and I are very aware of this.

Johnson: I think it comes down to being a very good listener and a very good observer. When you have these, your instincts kick in and enable those better moments.

Flatté: We never wanted to do something that wasn't what the person being filmed wanted. This is also something we think about in editing. Many decisions are made there. We wanted this to be a complex story that reveals some truth about life (laughs) so go that line. You make these decisions all along the way: When deciding on a movie, how and what to include in the movie. We really tried to tell some truth about the people involved. This is going to bring about some pretty intimate and difficult moments in the hopes of making you feel like you have met someone.

Filmmaker: I trust the people on camera will tell you the story.

Flatté: It comes when you put the time and effort into instead of deciding what the story is first and getting that. We didn't do that. I'll say that there was a way down in history when Mr. White said it would be his final year. Then it was like this, let's see what happens and who else we meet.

Filmmaker: I imagine it would be difficult to shoot these live performances to sync with the sound in the edit. You're both editors – did you come up with a good way of doing the music justice when shooting on the fly?

Johnson: I think one of the ways we approached that was to get an audio bed with full power, or as much as we could. We didn't have a lot of multi-cameras. We did it, but it wasn't like every performance that we had four cameras. So the key is to be able to get adequate coverage, not overshoot, but know that you have enough in the can to build this scene, as when you're editing with the power, it's not always A would go to Z. Knowing this, there is some way around this. When one of the DPs saw it being processed, he said, "Wow!" He said it looked like a multi-camera. We edited it to look like a multi-camera, but it's actually one. Not all the time, but often.

Flatté: One of the great things about drumming is that it repeats itself, so when you only have one camera, you have a chance. (laughs) One of the things that is very important to us is that the audience feels as close to the music as possible. I can honestly say that filming the live performances was a challenge and we did a lot of different ones. Those who are in the movie are there for a reason. (laughs) Again, we didn't want them to have to do it for us, so we followed what they were doing for a live audience. We did a lot of gigs and I'd say we got better over the course of 18 months.

Filmmaker: Both of your collective works look at communities from within their music.

Johnson: Both Anne and I are trained musicians. We really appreciate this and how effective it can be in storytelling and in people's lives. For me it was only a matter of course to bring these two worlds together.

Flatté: I think music is one of the most powerful forces in the world, how it affects us as humans. When I grew up, I played the piano, that's how I handled my emotions and learned to be disciplined. The power of music to bring people together, whether you play together or listen to them …

Filmmaker: I like the scene where Albert explains, "We can popularize culture." The dashiki was something the community made fun of, but the River City Drum Corp helped normalize it, which has a very direct impact of the music on the entire neighborhood.

Johnson: And the drumming and the music that was played specifically for these kids was an introduction to everything these kids can do. The imparting of life skills, the appreciation of the African and Afro-American culture result from the opportunity to play an instrument and learn music.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the design of the Arch of Zambia in the film? She introduced herself very quietly and gradually and we only see pictures of her at the end.

Flatté: I love to talk about Zambia's presence in the film. When we shot with Mr. White, Zambia was no longer alive. All I can say is that this is how it happened for us. We heard more and more about Zambia from everyone we shot. It became so clear that she was that powerful presence even though she had passed on. In fact, it was always present in the things we saw humans do. How do we include a deceased person in a movie like this and live up to their story? I consider her the main character in the film. You eventually get to know them, but not everything is in place at the beginning. It is a discovery process in which a person's legacy is discovered and how he lives on in people. I was inspired by films that deal with characters that are missing most of the film, like L’avventura when we tried that.

Johnson: More on Anne's point, it was as revealed to us. And we wanted the audience to have the same immersive and real-time experience. Staying true to this process was important to us. Not to have everything revealed at the beginning, but over time. That's exactly how it happened to us.

Filmmaker: In contrast to your process of receiving the story, in mainstream media there is the imposition of whoever wants to tell it and who someone speaks to in the film. It's a joyful movie, but you don't avoid the tragedies. How do you do this without becoming "news"?

Johnson: From the beginning we wanted to make sure we were focusing on all the nice things this community has to offer. Often times, the media shows a very narrow view of communities like West Louisville. I speak to it because I come from a community very similar to Miami. I grew up in a neighborhood that had certain challenges, but where there were all these other beauties that existed and weren't covered. We wanted a different narrative without being afraid of the existing systemic challenges. I think we struck a good balance between giving the people dignity in this film and humanizing them on screen so that they don't have the opportunity to do so. You have to see that Mr. White has the same needs, wants, fears and desires as someone on the other side of the country.

Flatté: This is what the people in the movie say, "This won't be on the 11 o'clock news." The media is telling a very small part of the truth, but it's very, very dominant. So it is important for the people in the church. When the people in the film saw the film, they said, "Thank you for doing this." Every night on the news they see a different representation. Media are powerful, their effect on people. The news doesn't focus on the caring adults trying to please the kids in this neighborhood. So that's what we show.

Filmmaker: Did you see any barriers when you tried to bring this to a wider audience? I know that the cancellation of SXSW due to COVID-19 was a curveball.

Johnson: Don't remind us of Aaron!

Flatté: (laughs)

Johnson: That hurt, man. You did so well. You had to go there. (laughs)

Flatté: We always knew that this would be an unusual film in the landscape. It's not about a major historical event, it's about people's daily life, struggles and successes. For us, this is the movie and the emotional journey that we love to see. We wanted to convey an emotional experience, not an informative experience. The whole reason I love film is because I feel connected to people when I watch films. Filmmaking is also about getting in touch with people on a very deep level that you just don't get on the news. I am firmly convinced that there are people who enjoy and want to see this film. How it is treated in the business world is a different matter, a business matter. Recent events have turned this film from a niche film to something more people are interested in.

Johnson: There's more appetite for this movie than before the pandemic. One of the tidbits of showing a film – we had the opportunity to physically show the film in New York and Miami – is that there will be viewers who obviously didn't know about the institution, or Mr. White or Albert, and about we come to each other and say, "I feel like I know these people." We would be Q&A and surprise everyone by bringing some of the participants from the film onto the stage. They were treated like rock stars. People say, "Are you actually here ?!" It speaks of the connection that we were able to make and that the participants were able to give us.

Filmmaker: I appreciated that the film didn't try to educate the viewer. It could have tried to enlighten us about something like the seven Kwanzaa principles that the children are taught, or engage in factoids about the community, but it is not and remains the emotional thing as you say. Everything we learn about community, we learn from people.

Flatté: There are so many people who do great things in documentaries, but there is a feeling that documentaries that emerged from news have to be informative and identify everyone. We don't think that's true. We don't think there has to be all these rules and expectations. We do not use speaking heads. We made aesthetic choices to make it feel more like a narrative film. You can't write this. Everything Mr. White says is amazing. Fortunately, we were free to do what we wanted to do, and do what we wanted. We hope that some of these rules about what a documentary should be need to be changed.

Johnson: We wanted to give the audience enough credit too. Often times, you can fall into the trap of spoon-feeding your audience. Both Anne and I like a little challenge. We like work in which the audience has to actively participate in the film. Narratives have no lower thirds and badges. Why should documentaries? When we decided this wasn't going to be part of our movie, it got tougher in many ways, but much more satisfying. These are the challenges we face ourselves and the audience.


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