The art forms of film and theater don’t often overlap. With the exception of the occasional adaptation — and the even more occasional filmed play — what happens on stage stays on the stage. Ditto for the screen.
Travis Wilkerson is keen to break down those barriers, along with a few others. The Alabama-born documentarian has created “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun,” an uncategorizably hybrid work that officially goes down as a documentary but in fact serves as many other things: murder inquiry, family confession, race meditation, multimedia stage show, film deconstruction.
The artist is screening the work in this Midwestern college town this weekend at True/False, the prestigious documentary festival that both reflects and sets the tone for the nonfiction film world’s latest trends.
The story stems from the knowledge the director, who is white, has about his family’s past. Or doesn’t have. In 1946, Bill Spann, a Southern black man, was killed by Wilkerson’s gun-wielding great-grandfather S.E. Branch at the latter’s grocery store. There is little doubt Branch did it, and equally no ambiguity that the crime was eventually expunged without record, let alone prosecution. Needless to say, the incident was almost never discussed in the Wilkerson home.
The artist’s presentation here distinguishes it from other documentaries with which its classified. As still photos, quotes, archived video footage and other shards of material flash on the screen, the director sits on a stage, laptop open, narrating much of what we see. Because the voice-over is happening in front of us, the feature has an intimate, alive quality, at times uncomfortably so.
Wilkerson’s piece, ruminative in the way of the recent Oscar nominee “I Am Not Your Negro,” is founded on a simple question many of us ask about our familes: how can I come from these people?
That leads him down numerous narrative alleys and philosophical cul-de-sacs (sometimes literally, as he shoots a front-seat view down an Alabama road to Phil Ochs’ ode-to-a-fallen-hero “William Moore,” from which the film’s title comes). There’s everything from Rosa Parks’ little-known history as a feminist activist long before the Montgomery bus boycott to an aunt who went from civil-rights activism to white nationalism over the past half-century. At a key moment on stage Wilkerson reads a letter from her about the Spann murder, describing the constructed, blameless reality she’s created as he shakes his head in disbelief.
“This isn’t a white-savior story. It’s a white nightmare story,” he says at one point of his exploration.
This condemnation is made even louder by the form Wilkerson chooses. Because the person doing the confessing, and the blaming, is in front of us, it becomes that much harder for the audience to exempt itself.
“A single-channel [non-multimedia] movie is a way to remove myself and hide behind the screen,” Wilkerson said after the screening. “This way I couldn’t hide.” (He said he hopes to release a version with voice-over built in, for expediency’s sake.)
When matters turn political Wilkerson is unflinching: “I don’t want to give [Southern secessionists] a platform, because white nationalists are in the White House,” he narrates. But he mostly hopes to offer his own reckoning with the past. The title is rhetorical, aimed at his family that never bothered to ask the question, and a rebuke to himself, as a filmmaker who had gone most of his 48 years without looking into what happened that fateful day.
At times Wilkerson is even intent on pointing the finger, provocatively, at white people generally for a complicity that allowed such racism to flourish. The Ochs refrain closes with a mea culpa reveal. “Did you wonder who had fired the gun?/Did you know that it was you who fired the gun?”
Filmed often in a black-and-white palette that paradoxically heightens the color-based differences underlying the film, “Gun” is a story both highly personal and unfailingly universal. At a moment when Oscar winner “Moonlight” explores race from new storytelling angles, Wilkerson adds an important voice to the chorus
He said in making the movie he hoped for some kind of justice or closure. But he soon came to the conclusion that wasn’t possible. “It’s shameful; I’m embarrassed. There’s no satisfying way to rectify it,” he said of the events in the movie.
“It doesn’t have any restorative justice or power. It’s just confession,” he added.