We RISE — A film project by filmmaker, JOHNNY SAINT OURS
Johnny Saint Ours, INTERVIEWED by Katy Crenshaw
Please introduce yourself; the filmmaker/ artist and your journey leading up to the Charlottesville event—
I was born in Charlottesville, my mother was born in Charlottesville, my two beautiful children were born there too. All of us in the same hospital. My grandfather won $100; for a contest when he designed the City Seal they still use today. But, I did not grow up there; I moved to Charlottesville from New York City in 1998, because I ran out of money pushing 16mm film through cameras; and decided to pursue still photography, enjoying its slower rate of fire. After a couple of shows that year, I was drawn back to my dream of filmmaking; and in 2000 I trespassed in a derelict coal-burning powerhouse on the banks of the Rivanna River to film an esoteric funeral scene for my movie, ZAMA’S FIRE. I wound up buying that piece of land a few years later, and well, then I knew I’d have Charlottesville in my heart forever..
Most of the time I spent in Charlottesville, I worked steel. I can drive you around and ,still, show off about a dozen architectural pieces I’ve left my mark with, but for the last 10 years I’ve basically been absent, working as a Director and a DP on a wide range of motion picture gigs. At the top of '17, I began living in Los Angeles, after a few years spent mostly in New Zealand on dumbed-down historical dramatization television shows. When the news of controversy over the Robert E Lee statue reached me, I had an idea: What if I gave that statue a new home on my land, the derelict ‘Powerhouse PIRÆUS', adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello?
The powerhouse sits on land, where some of Jefferson’s slaves were forced to chip ice from the river to haul up to his estate; to keep cool through the summer, and offer genuine iced tea to visiting dignitaries all year long? I sent messages out to members of City Council, the Vice Mayor, and several activists involved in removing the statue with this offer. The solution of keeping the statue nearby, but off-center appealed to all of us; and my framework for the piece would be a graffiti covered ruin, like the decay of the Jim Crow principles that erected the statue itself. Traveling across the Rivanna by slave-ship to witness it, the new display would be a visceral experience to behold, informative of the sinister past of the American South.
How did the event change you a citizen of USA and Charlottesville?
7:30am PST on August 12th, I was driving down from Topanga Canyon, and called my brother on the bluetooth speaker phone. He was in downtown Charlottesville when I called him; what he described to me I may have expected from somewhere, someday, as I’m no complete fool to the poison of fear and division, but honestly I never would have thought it would be coming to me live from my hometown first.
He had been walking through the streets with his wife and they came face-to-face with a gang of men in camo, carrying assault weapons. One of these men began shouting at him to get out of their way, and pointed, what my brother said was, an M16 directly at him, with finger on the trigger. Knowing that if he were to move, this unknown armed militia dude would be pointing at his wife, my brother held his ground, walking straight. The man continued to yell and point his weapon until one of the other militia guys nudged him and he grudgingly passed my brother and sister-in-law with a snarl. My brother was full of adrenaline and decided to get out of the zone.
While he told me this story I was driving thru a daze; from the lush hills of Topanga to the coastline of Santa Monica, sun shining over the Saturday morning crowds just getting into motion for another lovely LA weekend. The summary statement my brother made was something to the effect of “these guys, they might be out-of-work or under-educated, tired of being poor or kicked-around, but now, today, they walk tall, brandishing weapons proudly. This is the moment they’ve been promised, they’ve been waiting for. They are the ascendant ones, these are their streets.”
Nazi’s were in my hometown, pointing rifles at my family, and later, running over people with a car. 'Holy shit. Did I know any of the victims?' I identified three people I know very well in the photo which graced the following day's cover of New York Times; with bodies flying through the air around them, frozen in horror by the video still, inches from the fascists’ car. I’ve never been so moved by media; apart from the literal form in which I work: in media around the planet, but this time, I broke down. I could see my veins pulled across the country like a map of the highway system, coast to coast. There was a new meaning to the phrase "heart strings getting pulled."
I was on the wrong coast, and decided to drive home, to do what, I didn’t know; but to hug every person I could find, and then… do something. I called my mother from the road and said, “Momma, I hear there’s Nazi’s in our hometown, well, I’m going off to fight."
Can you introduce us to this film? Why did you make it?
We RISE is my foot in a closing door.
“An invasion, like a brick, shattered our placid veneer; sent a wave through the space between us…"
When these assholes came into my hometown and raised hell, caused violence and purveyed fear; it truly disturbed the peace. Charlottesville has been called “Best place to Live in America”, the “Happiest City in America” and the “Most Active City in America”… but in the wake of this ‘invasion’, there was was this creeping realization that maybe we had better look a little harder in the mirror, I mean, it’s all fine and good to say this was caused by outsiders, but did we not give them harbor? What part did we play?
“Although the surface has been broken, our reflection remains. Can we look hard into the mirror?”
We RISE is a pledge to let that ripple grow, unsubdued, into a wave of change. The monument to Lee still stands, but the flowers lain for the late, Heather Heyer, have been cleared. The door which my metaphorical foot keeps from closing is that energy—the will to look at ourselves and improve. This shit may be going back to status quo as fast as it can; we had better look at what the status quo is while we still have the view.
Why change Charlottesville, one of the world’s Happiest Cities?
Progressive Charlottesville has a sore shoulder, in my opinion, from the decades of patting itself on the back. When I returned from a fully integrated life in the cultural mecca of Los Angeles and found myself in familiar bars and restaurants, seeing clearly through this new lens that I was in a series of monochromatic scenes; where I’d found myself frequently the only white male in so many LA rooms, here I was amongst only whites. But, my city of 40-some thousand is probably less than half white, with a large African American and Latino population keeping it real. Why are we so seldom in shared space
Can you tell us more about the film processing happening in the film—was this something created for this film? And the meaning?
The Robert E. Lee statue wasn’t built in the Civil War, or its immediate aftermath. Charlottesville surrendered bloodlessly to General George A. Custer and even gave him a key to the city. After the Civil War the town played nice for a short spell; called Reconstruction, quietly gathering strength to sneak back to its white-supremacist-elite, who hid in plain sight for the moment only to resurface... The statue was built in 1924 to commemorate the end of Reconstruction, and as my sixteen year-old son pointed out, even if General Erwin Rommel was proven to be a great strategist and noble man, if we saw statues of him spring up in today’s world, we’d all know to be on high alert for the rise of a Fourth Reich. And yet, the proponents of the statue cite historical relevance dating back to the Civil War.
Well, the photographic method used in We RISE, collodion wetplate tintype, does date back to the Civil War, unlike the statue. In this film the method is used to memorialize a mixed-ethnicity, round-up of current Charlottesville. Write stories about Robert E Lee or Rommel, Lenin, Pol Pot… but don’t put their shadow over the center of town to perpetuate the fear and hatred over the descendants of their victims. Let’s instead celebrate the victory over those divisive war mongers; the prosperity enjoyed by an integrated home for all.
Is the creative process part of the healing process for you as a filmmaker?
Certainly, and it feels good to have it finished, but the process of producing it? I felt, more than once during this process, that maybe I should have slammed my head in the damn door. Producing a film is pain in the ass enough, but in this process I spent about 6 weeks getting verbal support from some of Charlottesville’s most influential elite, and taken back. I had express interest from a local billionaire who went silent when I began talking about a social capitalist solution to the rampant division. I went from a $100,000 budget with celebrity star power leading it, to a motion picture selfie and I’m still trying to gather the slimmed-down $10K budget I’ve scraped promises for.
I have these feelings, and yet; I have had invaluable support from the folks listed in the credits and more. James Barton is one, a local businessman, so moved by my message he has been a constant force for me to stay on track and create this film. And inspite of the pains; I hope We RISE is only the beginning of many more stories for a new narrative representing our actual differences in our own word;, that help us understand our common ground. This renewal of Folklore should be coming out of every community on Earth, not just Charlottesville; but again, Charlottesville was the first city with Nazis, openly marching in the streets the last few decades, And I believe that ripple could and should be a wave of change that other communities can draw inspiration from.
Besides the chain of events in Charlottesville what was the defining impetus for creating this piece?
Division has had me worried for the world, long before Charlottesville’s ‘Summer of Hate’ began; several of my screenplays and other works deal with this issue and theme. I’ve been in Rwanda and learned terror from the Belgian Colonial creation of racist hatred, in Haiti to witness the extreme poverty and distance that the people of Cite Soleil face, sex slaves in Cambodia deep within a system of horrors, and in my own home state, Virginia, where poor whites and black slaves were taught racism by British authorities as a way to keep them fighting each other; instead of the fighting the privileged minority ruling class.
There are at least 65 million people in the world today without a place to call home, a job, or a destination. That number is getting bigger and bigger and everyone is getting worried that their job and house and place to go is next; that an immigrant will take it, or a robot will render it obsolete. Somehow, lots of people today, just like they did back in the colonial days, find it easier to think there isn’t enough stuff, and grasp comfort in any promise that somebody else isn’t worthy of it as much as they are. We never should have fought each other for table scraps, and damn it, we should have learned that by now. The food is on the table, people, and there’s plenty of it.
This social capitalist notion is so easily dismissed by the closed-minded; even as it makes more and more sense, so I made We RISE as a toned-down introduction. There are many more films I hope to create about the human condition that has me so concerned all over the world; this is definitely bigger than Charlottesville.
The narrative that sets the tone—
"Do you feel it? –A rhythm in the air?:
How did this get written?
My first attempt at a script was written from Charlottesville itself, as if I could somehow speak for a whole city… I can’t. What do I know about how all these other people feel? I literally just want to know if anybody else feels it like I do; so I start by asking.