Interview with a Filmmaker

Across the Tracks in Austin


Andrew Garrison is an award-winning filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas. His narrative and documentary films consistently examine the meaning of place, and the role of art and media in harnessing its power to effect social change. Originally from Florida, he worked in Appalachia for several years. His most recent project, The Wilgus Stories, is a narrative trilogy about a boy growing up in rural Kentucky, surrounded by friends and family who are “mostly trying to do the right thing for each other, but not always succeeding.” He is currently working on a documentary about Project Row House, a Houston program that uses art as the engine for community revitalization, as well as two narrative works set in East Austin and the former Yugoslavia.

Last year Garrison launched a course called the East Austin Documentary Project. Many UT students receive a diploma without venturing into the part of Austin just across I-35. But in this course they are challenged to visit the other side of Austin’s “tracks” and produce a work that is not only about people from East Austin, but for them as well. This summer, East Austinites demonstrated their appreciation of the project by turning out by the hundreds to the screenings, which took place in an east side church and cafe. The next screening will take place December 5. For more information, contact [email protected].

Texas Observer: What is the purpose of the East Austin Documentary Project?

Andrew Garrison: First, the project fulfills my interest in meeting people and understanding the city I live in. Second, I want my students to have the experience of making a work for a specific audience–an audience that can respond to it. There’s nothing more difficult or more exciting. I also want the project to introduce students to collaborating with someone in that process of storytelling.

TO: How does this change the process of documentary-making?

AG: It is saying there is value in the local, the nearby. There are great stories to be told all around us. It is also in contrast to extractive filmmaking–going into some place, finding the story, getting it and getting out. When these students document stories, those are not just the students’ stories–they originate and belong to the subjects. There’s a collaboration that takes place from the moment a subject says, “Yes, I’ll talk to you.” That collaboration deepens as the conversations and interviews continue. After the students finally structure the piece in the editing process, they show the work to the people who participated so they can ask, “Is this right, does this make sense, is this what you said?” It completes the circuit and starts a new level of collaboration because the student will feel the consequences of the story–good or bad.

However, this is a five or ten-week introductory course, so in a lot of ways it’s the opposite of the very thing I’m trying to create. The continuity I’d like to see between individuals will have to be through the class. In the long run, I hope we create long-term relationships between people and the project.

TO: What interested you in starting such a project?

AG: It comes from working in community-based media for years. When I was in college in Ohio in the early ’70s, a handful of friends and I decided to form a political media group when we graduated. We called ourselves the Dayton Community Media Workshop and we made films, did local public radio, and this emerging portable video. One of our ideas was to show “political” films about feminism, or working class mothers or whatever, to audiences in local parks. We thought we’d get people to come to the screenings with slide/tape shows of pictures and interviews we did with people around the neighborhood. We’d project the pictures timed to interviews and music on tape, as the opening for the political movie. When people came to the first screening, they loved seeing and hearing themselves and their neighbors, but then they left during the “political” movie. When that happened, the light went on: People love to see the things that are real. We abandoned the movies and concentrated on making local slide/tape documentaries. We did that over two summers in four different neighborhoods, finding stories and issues and playing them back in parks.

TO: What kind of relationship do the students in the project have to East Austin?

AG: A few students have some other experience in East Austin and are telling stories they’re connected to. A percentage of the class are Latino and see elements of their family history and culture reflected in East Austin. But most of the students come from middle-class suburbs or small towns around Texas; East Austin is new to them, so the course makes them confront some of their own assumptions about class and culture… I think one way you [do that] is by developing relationships of mutual respect, by suspending judgments, and hearing people’s stories. Having a camera is a passport: it gives you permission to cross boundaries and ask deep questions that we don’t usually ask of strangers.

TO: How do those without previous exposure to East Austin find stories that interest them?

AG: I invite some friends to class to talk about ideas, issues, and boundaries of East Austin. These have included Juan Valadez of the Youth Impact Foundation and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, and Marcel Rodriguez, a young Austin filmmaker [and others]. We also go to the Guadalupe neighborhood of East Austin and have a walk around, and have met with people on the street, and Mark Rogers of the Guadalupe neighborhood association. I also give students news clippings and refer them to events I have heard about. But in the end, they must look around for something that interests them out of the wide range of possibilities available in East Austin.

TO: How have the subjects reacted to the projects?

AG: So far, we’ve only received positive feedback. For example, one piece was the story of Señora Lopez, a woman in her 70s who was being pressured to sell her house so developers could turn the site into condominiums and office space. She didn’t want to sell. In the piece by Andrew Cadelago, Isaac Simon, and Lauren Hardy, Señora Lopez tells this beautiful story about what her house means to her. Her husband bought the house and worked every day to pay for it, and then after he got sick, she took over the payments. She says, “I raised my children here. I’m happy here. I want to die in this house.” That story has meaning for anyone because it is about someone who has chosen the symbol of her family and her life over money. And when Señora Lopez saw it at the screening, she loved it. I asked if she had ever seen herself on television before. She hadn’t. So the experience also has a power.

We haven’t gotten negative feedback yet, but I do feel like sometimes we’ve had projects missing the mark. One project was a portrait of a really good nonprofit that brings food to shut-ins and older people. With the best of intentions, my student went to the public information officer, an Anglo who had recently moved here, for an interview. He had a story to tell, but his was a view of the organization’s work seen through how he felt about himself for being a part of it, and it didn’t include anything of the people stuffing the bags or making the deliveries, who were African-Americans and Latinos. Part of my aim as a teacher is to encourage the students to look deeper than the spokesperson and find the stories from people who don’t usually tell their stories in the media, and this is an example of the guy who always gets to tell the story.

And while I don’t think any of the subjects have been misrepresented or treated badly, I have seen students trying to do investigative journalism without the commitment to the ethics of journalism or a long-term commitment as a resident. These students, full of enthusiasm, see what they see to be an injustice and they see what appears to them to be a solution, and want to show that solution to other people. ..But providing easy solutions to problems without a deep connection to a situation is rarely useful and often harmful. As soon as you start telling people what ought to happen you’re no longer participating or collaborating, you’re preaching. And maybe you’re only pointing to part of the problem. Maybe you’re pointing at the wrong problem, or the wrong people. There could be more going on than what you see in a day or a week of filming. And then if you make your film and you leave, you leave the subjects in the position of picking up after you.

TO: Do you see this happening in many documentaries outside your class?

AG: We inevitably rely on “experts” to sum things up–when stories require some analysis, we have to find people who know what they are talking about. Many of the documentaries that influenced me were like this. I remember when I was growing up in South Florida, I saw a CBS White Paper called “Harvest of Shame.” It was a great, important documentary, and for a kid like me, growing up in a comfortable environment, it was valuable to know that there were migrant workers all around me. But because the people in that documentary didn’t speak for themselves, it didn’t help me understand them as human beings, beyond the fact that I didn’t think anyone should be treated that way. They were still foreign, still “other,” still “talked funny.”

Compare that with the farm workers’ movement that happened soon afterwards, where these people began to speak for themselves to a wider audience. It was only then that things began to change. Something like that CBS documentary can try to speak for people, and say we need to change laws; and that’s a good thing. But there’s also something in the act of standing up and speaking that changes you as a person. Something that has power. Obviously the East Austin project is very different from the farm workers’ movement, and people in East Austin–like people everywhere–already speak for themselves every day. But what my students and I are trying to do is work with people who are the “experts” in their own lives, and collaborate to tell their story for a wider audience. It is still a story interpreted by the storyteller. But I think it is more participatory and less insulated than those old CBS White Papers. And that has value for both the people whose stories are being told, and for the filmmakers who are learning about the world around them.

TO: What are the plans for the project?

AG: We want to have a physical archive on the East side to contain the finished projects and the original interviews. There are still things of great value in those outtakes, even if they just add up to a picture of life at this moment in East Austin. We also are starting a web site and web archive of the material so it can be streamed on demand. There’s been a lot of work done through UT and around the country about the “digital divide.” Technology and economics are certainly a part of the problem, but it seems to me that another reason is content. People go to the web when there is something they want to get. It is my old lesson from Dayton. I think if we put projects on the web about Señora Lopez’s house, or a blues guitarist, or a single mother going to school, or the Holly Street Power Plant, people will want to see them over and over.

Another hope of mine is to include east side residents more directly in production. One idea my friends Juan Valadez, Miguel Guajardo, and Colleen Fairbanks and I have talked about is having UT students work with younger students as mentors in making documentaries. This may happen in community centers or in schools. It may involve Radio-Television-Film students as well as College of Education students, because another hope of mine is to demonstrate how producing media can benefit classroom teachers as well as students. One thing Juan often says is that it’s important for kids in the community to interact with college students so they can see that they’re just people and that UT isn’t such a distant world.

TO: When documentaries aren’t for the subject, what are they for?

AG: They’re for the audience. The subjects might be part of that audience, but they don’t have to be. If you only made movies for the people who were in the movies you’d have a very tiny audience. The audience can be anyone who will enjoy it, be moved by it, benefit from it, and get something from it that they can use in their own lives. I don’t believe that movies all have to be a call to action. Most of the most moving and important stories I’ve known and learned, through movies or otherwise, were not crafted as political tools–they were made as great stories. Fundamentally they were about how human beings treat each other or how someone does what they have to do. They’re what have shaped me.

Rachel Proctor is a graduate student in the joint program in Middle Eastern Studies and Radio-TV-Film at UT-Austin.