Two Towns of Jasper, a feature-length documentary by filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow of Two Tone Productions in New York, begins with a drive down the rough rural roads of Jasper, Texas, U.S. Pine forest lines either side of the streets, but the camera is trained on the road, which is painted with circles at frequent intervals for about three miles. With rising horror, the audience soon learns that the circles mark spots where evidence was gathered for the racially motivated killing of 49-year-old African American James Byrd, who was chained by his ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death on June 7, 1998.
The doc picks up the story during the trials of the three men charged with Byrd’s murder. Using racially segregated crews, Williams and Dow capture the reactions of both Jasper’s white and black communities (a black film crew, led by Williams, filmed Jasper’s black residents; a white film crew, led by Dow, filmed the town’s white residents). The result is a candid look at the racial divide that still plagues American society. ‘One of the concepts of the film is that people make a lot of assumptions about other people,’ explains Williams. ‘This is a chance to hear, eavesdrop and discover what people are thinking.’
To ensure the finished film had a cohesive look, and to set ground rules for the shooting process, Dow and Williams decided to draft a manifesto. Among the 10 points they deemed crucial were: avoid speaking to each other during the shooting process; capture conversations, not interviews; and reveal to people that they were working together only after shooting finished. ‘Some people put us together right away and others, it never dawned on them,’ recalls Dow. ‘But, nine times out of 10, people would say, ‘Of course! You’re going to get something much stronger by doing it that way.’ The people most offended by the approach were white liberals. However, nobody would question a woman about feeling more comfortable discussing women’s issues with another woman.’
Cobbling together the funds to produce the US$950,000 film was an arduous process. Says Dow, ‘The only time we were afforded a financial comfort zone was during post production. We didn’t have a luxurious post production schedule or set up, but we weren’t worrying about when we needed to stop and write another grant, which we were doing throughout the production.’ The Wellspring Foundation and The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation each gave $25,000 to the project. The Independent Television Service in New York kicked in $300,000, while the New York-based National Black Programming Consortium contributed $30,000. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. also put $300,000 towards the budget. The remaining funds were gathered from various broadcasters and foundations.
The film was pitched at the Toronto Documentary Forum in 2001 with the hope that foreign sales would be secured. Dow says the experience established relationships, but not funding. ‘In one sense, it is a distinctly American story, but in another it’s a universal story,’ he explains. ‘I have clippings of a trial in Norway where white neo-Nazi guys killed a brown-skinned boy. In that sense, there could be a film called Two Towns of Oslo.’ Two Towns of Jasper has since sold to the BBC in the U.K., and to TV2 Denmark, which is also representing the film internationally.
Two Towns of Jasper premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January. At last month’s Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, Canada, it was awarded the silver award in the international documentary competition. ‘We worked very hard to make the film watchable,’ says Dow. ‘If it’s not entertaining, then you’re not engaged and if you’re not engaged, you don’t learn anything. Documentaries that are civic lessons feel like medicine.’
Williams adds that they are interested in creating a DVD of the film, and perhaps even a book. ‘One of the reasons we made the film is because there is broad, unstructured dialog on race, but very little constructive dialog,’ continues Dow. ‘Hopefully this film can be an impetus for talking about race effectively.’ Interestingly, both Dow and Williams admit they finished the film feeling more pessimistic about race relations than when they began.
Two Towns of Jasper is scheduled to air on PBS strand ‘P.O.V.’ in the fall.