Filmmaker Rachel Boynton Chats About the Power of Cinema and Storytelling When It Comes to Lost Causes

On her film "Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are)"

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Dear Moviegoers,

Rachel Boynton’s docu-essay Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are) crosses some paths with the filmed poem-anthology piece Many Fires This Time (covered in another Q&A some months back). Both deal in past trauma, living wounds, and the future of thought, and both feature the outspoken poet A Scribe Called Quess.

In Boynton’s film (now on Peacock), Quess is briefly interviewed during a Confederate monument removal in New Orleans. When asked about the South, he bluntly and matter of factly states “Fuck the South.” Now, some might hear that and take offense, but I felt that this was more of a statement on something larger. Quess wasn’t just expressing disgust, but more stating how racism isn’t merely a Southern thing. It’s not exclusive to one region of America.

Indeed, Boynton and her movie seek to educate others on and to find answers about the past success of re-framing the Civil War by Confederate sympathizers, and the challenges in breaking down walls of “heritage” and access to information between generations and races. An astounding feat for one to achieve, if possible:

Bill Arceneaux: In your film, storytelling plays a large part in how Confederate sympathy and understanding were sold to everyone post-Civil War. What medium for you is the most significant and powerful manner to change or set collective opinion, and why?

Rachel Boynton:
In America, it’s changed over time. Immediately after the War, textbooks, statues and popular literature all played a huge role in building and selling the Lost Cause myth. When Hollywood rose up, you saw it seep into film from the very start— in Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and all those westerns centered on former Confederates and Confederate-sympathizers (Vera Cruz, Red Mountain, The Outlaw Josey Wales, etc. etc.).

In Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are), I spend a lot of time in classrooms, because I’m interested in how we’re teaching this history to our children now; what we learn as fact at a young age has such a powerful influence over how we understand the world. And of course, you can’t forget the stories that have been passed down in families over the generations. Maybe that kind of storytelling is the most powerful of all.

But remember: we also need to spend time thinking about the silences—the narratives that haven’t been told or that were purposefully ignored. Whose stories weren’t written into our textbooks? Why were their stories erased? An absence of a thing can be very hard to notice—but that absence echoes and infects how we see.

BA: Buster Keaton’s The General, considered a masterpiece of silent cinema, takes a sort of neutral approach towards the depiction of both sides - seen as opposing but respected soldiers - but by the end, the lead signs up for the Confederate army, in a show of manhood and pride. How do you feel about such well-criticized classics that have perspectives which conflict with modern views, lightly or heavily?

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RB: The General is a product of the time in which it was made; it needs to be seen in its historical context. That neutral approach—which you can see even in official US government films— was the direct result of the white North and the white South trying to make some kind of peace after the war. That attitude seeped into all the arts—books, poetry, film.  Black stories were ignored, unless they were told from a white perspective. All sorts of people were left out of the narrative – including women and anyone who wasn’t deemed white. It’s not that these people didn’t play a role in the history; they just weren’t given a voice in the telling.

But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch the film. How we feel about it might change over time, but it remains an important cultural work. There is an idea in America right now that maybe we shouldn’t engage with work that offends us or that gives voice to values we disagree with. I think this is incredibly dangerous. We have to be critical. We have to be open to points of view we haven’t thought about before. But we also have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Art exists to hold up a mirror to the people who see it— and we may not always see things that make us feel good, but hopefully what we see can change us for the better.

BA: Your film has a great empathetic approach towards everyone, even when there’s clear disagreement. Never did I feel as if the camera was looking at anyone cock-eyed or with pre-conceived judgment. Was the production a challenge for you in directing the attitudes of yourself and your crew, or was everyone pretty open to observation?

RB: Well, the crew wasn’t much of a crew. We were two people—Nelson Walker (the cinematographer) and myself (I directed and did sound). When I got access to the very first school in December 2015, the first call I made was to Nelson. We had never worked together, but I had met him when I was looking for DPs to take to Nigeria with me for my film Big Men and I remembered him as someone who was remarkably open to the world and to other people. Civil War is an intimate look at some of the most uncomfortable topics in American culture, and we’re talking to people in their living rooms and in all sorts of private spaces. So I knew it was vital to find a DP who was generous of spirit, humble in front of the unfamiliar, and who was an incredibly good listener. Nelson is all of those things in spades.

BA: I honestly can’t think of many movies, off the top of my head, that are set during Reconstruction (aside from parts of Free State of Jones). Why do you think there aren’t more, and what would you like to see them explore?

RB: The films that do focus on the period after the War are usually focused on a Lost Cause/Old South narrative (see the list of movies above). But until very recently Reconstruction wasn’t taught in American schools—it was literally skipped over. So it’s not surprising that people who are old enough to write and make movies haven’t focused on it. My husband is a fiction filmmaker and as I was making Civil War I kept trying to sell him on the idea that he should make a Reconstruction epic.  I’m attracted to the post-apocalyptic chaos and the rapid social change that were all happening in tandem, and I pitched him all sorts of ideas, but I won’t write about them here, because I’m still holding out hope that maybe he’ll make one of them someday…

BA: Do you have any favorite films that challenge people to express empathy, and why?

RB: The first one that came to mind when I read your question was The Act of Killing. It’s a masterpiece.

Sincerely Yours in Moviegoing,

:)


(Note: Moviegoing, whether it be at the theater or at home, brings about some expenses. If you enjoy this blog/newsletter and are so inclined to support it, please do follow along, subscribe, leave comments, and share it around. Many thanks!)