One of the cool things about the Virginia Film Festival is that they sometimes focus on a particular director and show several of his or her movies. One of those who was featured this year was Macky Alston, a gay documentary filmmaker. Three of his four movies were shown and I was able to attend all of them.
His first, “Family Name,” was the most personal. Made in 1997, the film traces Macky’s journey to expose the secrets of his family’s past as he discovers they once owned a large number of slaves who, in turn, took the Alston family name. As he traces his family history and searches for the possible blood relationship between his family and the African-American family which shares the name, he unearths amazing documents and meets many colorful characters along the way, some of whom are much less interested in revealing the past than are others. They tell Macky, “There’s a dead cat down the river,” which apparently is a colorful Southern expression meaning they refuse to talk about it.
I was impressed by some interesting shots, such as Macky narrating the film while driving and the camera under his steering wheel, and a shot of the World Trade Center (remember this movie was made four years before 9/11) while a Black man with AIDS talks about the fragility of the human condition. But the most emotional part, however, was when he joined the African-American Alstons and suddenly realized they were fulfilling the Dream of Martin Luther King: that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former salve owners will be able to sit down together in brotherhood. That really moved me.
During the talkback, a number of interesting points were brought up, particularly that “what we think we know, we don’t know.” Macky was asked a lot of interesting questions including one about the relationship between his movie and the Thomas Jefferson / Sally Hemmings controversy, which was an important issue here in Charlottesville right about the time his movie came out. Macky also talked about how one’s presence as a filmmaker alters what happens in the movie.
I asked him about the editing process—how much raw footage he had to edit down and how he made decisions, but he didn’t really answer the way I had hoped. He gave a rather general response saying that editing was long and grueling and he got a lot of help and advice from others and that it took him a year. I had hoped he’d be a bit more specific. Oh well.
The second Macky Alston documentary I saw was called “Hard Road Home” and was about the Exodus Transitional Community, a New York faith-based organization for ex-cons, run by ex-cons, to help them reintegrate into society upon release. This is harder than one might think because recidivism rates are high; in fact, four out of ten released convicts will be re-incarcerated within six months.
Macky’s film profiled Julio Medina, the former gang-leader who established this excellent support organization; Alberto Lopez, one of the councilors who had been a model employee until personal problems develop which might take him back to prison; and Griffik Negroni, a young man just released from prison who is at a loss as to how to conduct himself in a free society “outside” after having gotten used to the regimental institutional life “inside.”
The film actually moved me to tears in a few places—perhaps for personal reasons as I thought about a good friend of mine who might someday find himself in a similar situation. And also when I realized that the Exodus Transitional Community supported each other, like a family—their role was not to judge but to understand.
Afterwards, there was a good discussion with Macky, a civil rights lawyer, and a prison chaplain. They talked about how important it is for us, as a society, to see ex-cons as human and recognize our own struggles in their struggles. Also, Macky spoke about his role as filmmaker in their lives, and how he stayed out of the picture and remained more objective, unlike “Family Name” where he took the central role of instigator.
The final Macky Alston film, “The Killer Within,” was by far the best and most disturbing. The movie introduces us to Bob Brechtel, a man who outwardly seems normal and respectable: he’s an esteemed professor at the University of Arizona and a loving family man with a wife, a daughter, and a step-daughter. But Bob has a deep, dark secret which, after harboring for a half-century, he reveals first to his family, then to his friends, then to his university community. In 1955, he was a student at Swarthmore College (as was my mother, by coincidence, and in the interest of full disclosure) where he felt he was being bullied. In response, he planned a Virginia-Tech style massacre, setting out to kill all 250 students in his dormitory. He murdered one, Holmes Strozier, before finally coming to his senses and turned himself in. After spending five years in an institution for the criminally insane, he was set free and started life anew.
This movie brings up so many fascinating and unsettling issues, I’m not sure where to begin. There is much negative reaction to Bob’s revelation, but also some support from the unlikeliest of places: the president of the university. Perhaps the most outraged is John Stozier, the brother of Holmes, who insists his brother was no bully. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest Bob was not bullied at all; rather the whole thing was “a product of his insane mind.”
There is an interesting comparison of the judicial system then vs. now. As someone pointed out, we are no longer in the “second-chance business;” later someone suggested the reason was because in the 1950s we were less jaded, as a society, by aggression and violence, and therefore we were more willing to be understanding and work through the issues and forgive; whereas today we are just so overwhelmed by the violence and don’t care anymore so we just lock them up and forget about them.
Perhaps the most shaken person is Bob’s daughter Carrah who struggles hard to come to grips with the fact that the man who loved her and reared her is a killer and might have become one of the worse mass-murderers in the history of the US. Even more fundamental, she had always believed killers should be executed, yet had her father suffered that fate, she’d have never been born. She wonders if her very existence is the result of a miscarriage of justice.
Toward the end of the film, Bob and his family return to Swarthmore on the 50th anniversary of the shooting, yet we are all frustrated by Bob’s lack of emotion as he recounts those events and we’re forced to wonder what is going on in his mind and just how different he is a half-century later.
When the movie ended and the credits started going up, there was dead silence. 99 times out of 100, a film festival audience applauds when the credits start to role. If they don’t, it means one of two things: either they hated it, or they were just so stunned by it that they lost the power to bring their hands together. And I think it’s fair to say, in this case, that it was the latter.
There was an excellent panel discussion afterwards which was moderated by a professor from Virginia Tech. It’s only been six months since the infamous shootings, only 140 miles from here, and a story about a college shooting touches fresh wounds. And yet as Bob Brechtel’s case was discussed, we realized how vastly different he was from Cho.
A defense attorney and a psychiatrist who specializes in bullying joined the panel with Macky, and there was much talk about bullying as a defense for murder. Macky spoke about how he himself, as a gay person, was bullied over and over again, yet he never seriously considered doing what Bob did—and the same can be said for millions of other victims of bullying.
Overall, I was quite pleased with the films of Macky Alston and glad I had the chance to see all of them (well, all three that played) back-to-back at the festival, and to hear him speak, because it gave me a good sense of what his overall work is like, as well the chance to see some great films about issues that gave me a lot to think about.
Next up, look for Part III: “Who the Hell Is Alan Berliner?”