Filmmakers talk seeds of activism

From left, filmmakers and change-makers Charles Burnett and Rais Bhuiyan listen to actor, activist and Port Townsend Film Festival’s special guest Danny Glover speak about his upbringing during a community conversation event. 

Once Danny Glover started talking about activism, it was difficult to get him to stop. Glover came in to a round of applause at the Community Conversation event, during which he, Charles Burnett and Rais Bhuiyan were guests, with a simple word in all white letters on his black T-shirt: Equality. 

That was the message he spread at the Community Conversation event on the first day of the Port Townsend Film Festival. 

Martha Jo Trolin's work with Skillmation made her the chosen moderator for the event held Sept. 21 at the First Presbyterian Church. Her first question to the three of them concerned the “seeds of their activism.” 

Glover, who was the special guest of the three-day event, answered the question by recalling visiting his grandmother in Georgia in 1955 from San Francisco, witnessing segregation and impoverished people. He remembered Southern students would pick cotton and could only quit when it was all finished, which was about in September, just before the school year began. 

These images of the American South stuck with Glover, even after returning to his California home when he saw his parents watching television coverage of protests. 

“They were there, even though they weren’t there physically. They were there emotionally and intellectually,” Glover said. “I wanted to be like those people who were protesting. They looked like me … and I wanted to be like them.” 

It wasn’t until he was a student at San Francisco State College in 1967 that he could channel the passion to make change. The images and messages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struck him, prompting him to take what he had learned on the campus and bring it back to communities. Whenever he would perform on stage, Glover was sure to dedicate a performance to something he cared about, whether it was a homeless person he had met on the way to the theater or a photograph he had signed, giving more meaning to the performance. 

The second question Trolin asked the trio was about what advice they would give to overcome the distractions and fear, and how to model civil discourse and “pierce the polarization to discuss the larger picture” in the present political climate. Still holding the microphone from the previous question, Glover candidly held it in front of Burnett and Bhuiyan, with an expression that said, “I’m not taking this one on first. How about one of you?” with a round of laughter. 

Bhuiyan was the courageous one to take on the heavy question saying, “It is high time for all of us to make each other respectfully uncomfortable” to tackle social issues, as well as taking responsibility instead of blaming others. He also emphasized the importance of acknowledging past wrongs, such as the injustices surrounding The Trail of Tears, in order to move forward. 

“If we don’t acknowledge our past mistakes, we cannot move forward,” Bhuiyan said. He added that it is important to teach respect for everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or cultural background. 

Bhuiyan described a time in 2016, when he was invited to give a talk in Charleston, South Carolina. With an interest in the history of slavery, he visited plantations, which he said made him uncomfortable. While in the downtown area, he saw an elderly woman giving information about the benefits of slavery. Bhuiyan asked why it was all right with her to treat people as property. She replied, “What was wrong with it?” and cited previous examples of slavery. Bhuiyan countered with, “Would it be OK if you were one of them?” and left her with that to ponder. 

Bhuiyan plugged the World Without Hate campaign, which he founded, at worldwithouthate.org, as a way to have a respectful discussion. As a filmmaker, Bhuiyan had his short film “The Secret Life of Muslims” shown at the Port Townsend Film Festival. The film depicted Muslims, like himself, their personalities, talents and accomplishments. 

Burnett — an award-winning director for his work on the documentary “The Killer of Sheep” and who directed Glover in “To Sleep with Anger” — answered the question by recounting an incident while he was visiting the Venice Film Festival. While at an Italian hotel, he saw a security guard who was intimidating at first glance. With a desire to be friendly, Burnett gave a “buongiorno” greeting and the guard smiled. Burnett likened it to sunshine, and changing his mood as well as his outlook on people.

“Human beings are special,” said Burnett through tears. “You forget that. So, that’s what changed me.” 

For the first question, surrounding the beginnings of his activism, Burnett told about his upbringing in Los Angeles. The memory that stuck in his mind was when his teacher demeaningly told him and his peers, “You won’t be anything,” while walking down the aisles of desks, pointing at each. From that experience, he made a pact that he would write about that, which took him to the University of California Los Angeles film school. With the understanding of his position as a black filmmaker, Burnett took it upon himself to politicize the film department. 

“I was one of the few black people in UCLA,” Burnett said, recalling that he stood out from the more wealthy community members. He found himself among other minorities, such as Asian and Native American students.

“We wanted to use film as a way of social change,” he said. “We used it to fight stereotypes. There was a need to communicate with those outside the community.”

Burnett gave an example of watching John Wayne’s “The Searchers” as an illustration of how art has an effect on those who consume it. The film shows Native Americans in a brutal and violent way, offending one of those he watched it with.

Glover gave the final answer to Trolin’s question, delving into America's systems of oppression, such as slavery, claiming that was the reason it made “this country rich, period,” as well as the massacres of Native American peoples. He championed changing these systems, impressing upon his audience that it is a community that is needed to raise a child. 

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