“An Outrage” will screen Wednesday in Carroll Hall, Room 33 at 7 p.m.
The Daily Tar Heel: How did you get your start in filmmaking?
Lance Warren: You know, we very much stumbled into it. Several years ago we were living in Charlottesville, Va., back in 2009. Unexpectedly, we had the opportunity to join a public history project that had formerly existed as an online exhibit to make a documentary film about a community in Charlottesville. This tapped into the history that Hannah and I had studied in college, which was our academic focus; we didn’t go to college for filmmaking. It allowed us the opportunity to try something new — to tell a story about the past in a way that could connect with a wide audience of people.
DTH: Have you always had a strong interest in social justice? Is that what most of your projects are about?
Hannah Ayers: Yeah, both of us studied American history with a focus on social justice in school. We lived in New York for four years, where I worked for a human rights organization called Witness, and Lance worked for an education nonprofit helping train history teachers. Both of us were able to incorporate media into those jobs. When we decided to take our filmmaking full time in 2014, we very much wanted the focus to be on the intersection of history and social justice. Those are the themes that run throughout our work.
DTH: With that being said, what made you choose the topic of lynching in the American South?
LW: It was a couple of things coming together. On the one hand, it was this work with history teachers and realizing that they have such a tremendous opportunity to teach Americans what they’re going to remember about the past. Most of us, after all, don’t go on to study history in college or graduate school, so what we learn in middle and high school about individual episodes in the American past is often the last opportunity we have to learn about American history in an academic setting. We’d discovered through this work that history teachers have a really profound – and I think unheralded – often, role in shaping American memory, how people vote, how people raise their kids. Around the time that we were having those reflections, we were working with a number of history professors and hearing lectures all throughout the United States, but lynching was a recurring topic. As we learned more about it, we discovered that we knew relatively little about the history of lynching. We knew the broad parameters that are kind of common knowledge, but we discovered that this history was much deeper, much more complex and even uglier than we’d imagined. We found ourselves wondering about the family story behind this, and what could we do to create a film that will work for history teachers who have this profound opportunity to influence American children that would help to reveal that past in a way that’s very human-centered.
DTH: Do you think this topic is more relevant than ever today, in such a racially divided society?
LW: I think the topic has always been relevant, and what we’re appreciating more in this moment is how urgent it is to talk about the different ways in which different Americans remember the past. One thing that’s really struck us about the history of lynching is that it should not be seen as controversial, right? Because there are no legitimately differing points of view on whether it was a good or bad thing. It was a horrible thing, and so that ought to be something that we can come together on. Things are terribly divided today, as indeed they’ve always been divided. There’s no moment in the American past where everyone’s been on the same page about pretty much anything. There are some of the most fundamental questions we don’t come together on, but this is one that we think we could – that decent human beings decry the murder of innocent people. And the thing is, if that happened to your family and had then been forgotten about, pushed out of the history book, you’d probably be pretty upset about that. That’s something we think a lot of people can wrap their heads around. We focused on families in the film, because we all have families. We all can try to imagine what it might have been like for that to happen to our grandmother, to our uncle. This is a divided moment, just as American history is shaped by divided moments, but this, we think, is a platform for coming together. A real opportunity to have dialogue about values that we all share like human dignity. We want to try to figure out a way forward that is less divided on this front.
DTH: What has the general reaction been from viewers?
HA: We’ve actually been very heartened by the reactions of audiences so far. We’re heartened that people are willing to come and talk about a history that’s very difficult and that has been forcibly forgotten for so long. We’re heartened by the thoughtful questions we’ve received asking about how we grapple with this history and how we use it to move forward. I think people are appreciative that they get the chance to learn about the family stories, because family is something we all have that we can all relate to. I think it makes this history that can feel overwhelming personal.
DTH: Have there been stronger reactions at showings in the South where this hits a lot closer to home?
LW: I think the reaction has been somewhat different. At some of our Southern screenings, the very pervasiveness of lynching in the South has really taken a front and center role. For example, we had a screening in Williamsburg, Va., several months ago where, in reflecting on the film, some people in the audience raised their hands and started mentioning rumors they had heard when they were growing up of a lynching having taken place in a certain part of town that was familiar to everybody but that hadn’t been documented. Increasingly, other people raised their hands and said they’d heard about that too. By the end of the evening, those folks were coming together to figure out what they could do to research and document that, to figure out if there needed to be some sort of memorial effort or some kind of public history around that. We’ve seen that elsewhere, and I think it speaks to the real opportunity particularly in the South, because although this happened all across the country, it was profoundly a Southern phenomenon. We think that speaks to the real opportunity in the South for communities to confront this history in their own backyard.
DTH: What is your main hope for audiences to take home from the film?
LW: The opportunity to take action is right here. We’re confronted everyday by tremendously overwhelmingly sad news all around the world, all around the country, and it’s often difficult to know what can I do about that? This is something where, in your own town, you can actually play a role in helping to turn the tide, in helping to take a hidden history and make it a well-known history. Along with that, the other really big focus of our work with film is education. We had a partnership through the Southern Poverty Law Center, which will be carrying the film to its network of 500,000 teachers and their millions of students, starting next month with a curriculum they’ve written to go with the film. Through that, we’re really hoping that a generation of young people can learn about a history that it took us deep into our adulthood to have any familiarity with, and most people still don’t know about.
The Daily Tar Heel: What about “An Outrage” appealed to you and convinced you to show the movie here?
Bridgette Cyr: The event was brought to our attention by Kelly Creedon, a former adjunct professor. She let us know the film was on tour and Hannah and Lance were interested in doing a screening at UNC. We’re really interested in diversity and promoting that through the education of this screening. We’re really trying to open up space. We’re not allowing other people to speak, we’re just opening up space for what needs to be said.
DTH: Do you think the content about lynching in the American South is particularly powerful here, in the South?
BC: I think it hits close to home because this is where we are. I hope it sparks the same kind of conversation it would spark in the Midwest. I think it’s really important to note that being forced to kind of reconcile with what’s happened in the past and to constantly be thinking about it reminds us to never let it happen again. What I really appreciate with what the filmmakers have done is that they are bringing voices to educational settings. This isn’t giving the filmmakers a voice, it’s just allowing people to listen. The fact that the film is going on tour is a unique way to hear those stories.
DTH: What do you hope audiences take away from this screening?
BC: My hope is it inspires UNC students to start thinking critically about some of the issues the South has faced in the past. I hope they think about how to apply a positive spin to what’s happening today. We need to create a space where our fellow students feel safe to speak their mind. I hope it inspires people to start paying attention to what’s going on today and to think about what kind of legacy they want to leave. It’s important to honor and listen to the voices that have been made silent.