‘Introspection Is Essential’: An Interview With Travis Wilkerson

The acclaimed filmmaker discusses his latest, “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?,” and looking into his own family’s past


It wouldn’t be easy to discover that your great-grandfather was a racist murderer. And it would definitely be difficult trying to uncover the truth behind his crime — and to learn something about the person he killed. In the new film Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, Travis Wilkerson digs into both his family’s past and into the history of Dothan, Alabama, the town where Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, in 1946, shot and killed an African American man named Bill Spann under mysterious circumstances. The movie is beautiful, brutal, and deeply upsetting — and it’s not like any other documentary you’re likely to see in this or any other year.

It also confirms that Wilkerson is one of the most important filmmakers working today. His 2003 feature debut, An Injury to One, a brilliant and infuriating look at the murder of labor organizer Frank Little in the town of Butte, Montana, is certainly one of the best American documentaries of the last twenty years. (J. Hoberman called it “a model of low-budget formal intelligence as well as engaged filmmaking.”) Over the past decade and a half, Wilkerson has put together a body of work that is increasingly innovative, confessional, and downright uncomfortable — both in subject matter and form. I talked to him recently about his latest film, its personal subject matter, and how his work has developed over the years.

When I first saw Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? at Sundance, it was a live, mixed-media presentation, where you sat in front of an audience and narrated and cued the whole thing. What led to your deciding to present it that way?

I’m really fascinated with methods that create new forms. And in this case, I was expressing something that was kind of intimate and challenging and awkward and uncomfortable. What is the circumstance in which that would have the most energy and charge?  I kept thinking about the idea of having a very difficult conversation with someone, and how if I’m in the room with them, that is a very different conversation than if on the phone or, god forbid, on Skype.

So, I was thinking about all that…and then two different times I was required as part of a grant to do a short five- to seven-minute presentation at an artists’ retreat. And both times I was planning to present a section of a film. Then, both times, in different iterations over two years, there was a technical flaw where there was some missing audio, and I was forced to improvise lines. I saw how the energy of the room changed when the kinds of subjects that I was talking about were being expressed directly. Because of the nature of this story, doing it that way had an immediacy and force that it wouldn’t if you could hide behind the screen.

And now it’s a self-contained film. What was the biggest challenge in turning it into a movie that could work on its own?

There were a few big ones. The absence of that energy in the room, the respiration, the pacing, my physical presence onstage — how you react to what I’m saying is different when it’s just me sitting onstage and you’re looking right at me. There was a certain electricity that would be absent. So, I thought: “Let’s take the essential aspects — the things that really seem to be energizing, challenging, provoking, and entertaining in its different iterations — and kind of distill it all down.” And then the key: What’s the voice? Because the voice was so driven in the live performance by the room and what I was responding to. Now, suddenly, I had this ability to do what I wanted it to be more like — which was kind of a whisper, like I was sharing something under my breath. Because there is a certain sense of shame.

And then something else that I feel better about with the film version: When I do it live, somehow my presence makes it harder for people to speak freely about apprehensions and challenges — because it’s always harder for us to be critical to someone’s face than behind their back. And so, the film rattles people even more than the performance does. Over and over again I’ll get feedback from people that suggests they’re wrestling with it somehow. And honestly that’s the abstract dream as an artist — that you produce something that forces people to reckon with something, and think about it afterwards, as opposed to simply liking it or disliking it.

Over the course of your career, I feel like your voice has gotten more vulnerable, and angrier.

My goal, or how I would express it, is that I feel it’s gotten a little more intimate and a little more sincere, which would encompass the full range. A little bit more self-critical, a little bit more haunted, a little bit angrier, a little bit sadder. With An Injury to One, the funny thing about that film…while there’s a lot that I feel really, really proud about it, when I watch it now, I’m just struck that it doesn’t reveal anything about the fact that I have this specific relationship to Butte, Montana, too — that I went to high school there, that my dad was working in the emergency room there. That my mom was involved in community struggles over environmental quality there. That, you know, there was a restaurant that I liked. And that I had a class relationship to the town. The whole film is about class relations, but there’s no acknowledgment of my role in that very hierarchical, very polluted, very corrupt world. I always think it looks like a really lovely film made by someone who just went to CalArts. Which is completely true! But I feel like the voice expresses that limitation — which is different from where I am now, where introspection is essential.

I was thinking so much about the way this idea is rendered on the national level — because I think our political leadership is literally incapable of introspection. Like, we have a president who is pathologically incapable of introspection. And that says something — that this sort of abusive approach to power cannot be self-critical. This impulse towards acknowledging the self, being critical, looking inward — it’s a way to look outward with better vision.

It also has something to do with how we consume politics and art. We think of ourselves always as observers — never participants. And in truth we are always participants; we’re just not willing to acknowledge it.

Yeah. I mean, democracy is enacted at so many different levels of society — and I don’t mean democracy in the sense that you get to vote or choose or have volition, but in which you are a player in the political life of the country. That’s a huge aspect of our society that we don’t really think about.

This progression of putting yourself more and more in these works — has it been an evolutionary process, or were there key works along the way where you made a conscious decision to go more personal?

I’m working with such minimal resources and I take on so many tasks myself that I am always thinking about these kinds of relationships. The first significant iteration of this “I’m really in the center of the frame” idea was the performance piece Proving Ground, which I did at Sundance in 2007, and at PDX I think in 2008. And then at dive bars in Los Angeles three or four times around that same period. I’d just set up in a corner on a pool table. I was wrestling with this question of my place in the frame, because I’m doing a lecture about the history of bombing campaigns, there’s rock ’n roll behind me, there’s looping violent images. It was a very aggressive, almost abusive piece trying to sort of shake people out of their indifference to violence associated with war. And in that work, there’s a series of three chapters where I go crazy — Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos — where I just really pushed and got very emotive, loud music, intense punk rock, screaming. And yet there’s no acknowledgment of the obvious point — which is that my dad was in Vietnam and that he was already showing the earliest signs of health problems related to having been exposed to Agent Orange, which led to the cancer that killed him.

The next actual film I did was Distinguished Flying Cross, which is about my father’s experiences in the war. That’s the first time in a movie where I’m in the frame — because the film unfolds as a conversation with my dad. It’s a father sharing war stories with his adult sons. Part of what I’m wrestling with there is the way in which legacies of war and violence are handed down. But that’s the first time that I’m me and I’m there and I’m present.

And then the next longer film I make is Los Angeles Red Squad, which deals with the history of the anti-radical division of the Los Angeles Police Department, and it goes in the opposite direction — there’s nothing really personal, it’s a list of events and incidents and acts of violence. It was the first time I was trying to film Los Angeles, and I thought, “Well, I have to resist the clichés of filming Los Angeles, and this is an immense challenge because so many films have been made in Los Angeles. How does one do this?” So, I just refused to use anything approximating a traditional narrative structure. But then of course the film does what one would imagine without a normal narrative structure — the audience is awash in images, and distanced, and they don’t really get the point.

So, I actually decided to make another film in Los Angeles [Machine Gun or Typewriter?], with a lot of the same locations and stories and notions about the relationship of the landscape to the history of violence within that city. But I thought, “What if I did the exact opposite of the previous film?” I embraced structure and narrative and fictional elements, and I used a genre that would be associated with that city, which is noir. But I didn’t have any money at all; I made that movie for three hundred bucks. I had a part-time teaching job at Pomona College, and my wife was working her ass off as a landscape designer. That’s where, again, the method produced the form. “What is available to me?” Well, what was available to me was this pirate radio transmitter I’d had for a long time that I had never used for anything. I could use my voice, I could create characters and explore these ideas. It was initially a very practical choice; if I had an actor I could have easily worked with, I would have preferred it. But the film clearly reached people in a way that the previous ones did not.

When it comes to this idea of the method determining the form: With Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, so much of it is about a failed investigation, which then informs the digressions that you have in the film — into Rosa Parks and the civil rights struggle and more. At what point did you know where the story was going — or rather, that the story wasn’t actually going anywhere, but that the film would?

I’ve done these kinds of investigations enough times, and I know that what would be a sort of traditional film investigative narrative outcome, with a big reveal, has never been a part of my work. There’s something that feels very false to me about it — like there’s this singular, exciting detail that is discovered that gives you all this knowledge about a particular story. I’m much more interested in seeing the larger contours, and where they’re going. Early on, I thought that it was very possible I wouldn’t find out anything, because I know the way that information is destroyed by power and oppression. I wanted to make my most sincere effort to discover everything I could, and to be open to what I encountered. But I certainly was comfortable at all times with the outcome that it had. And, like, the week before Sundance, if the granddaughter of Bill Spann had called me or something, I would have addressed it in the film. I would not have erased that, at all. But I also understood that there was something about this specific destructive history that had produced this lack of concrete results — and that actually articulated the issues of violence and the power I was addressing.

In terms of the disparate elements in the film, I’m always looking for the relationship between two things that seem disconnected but may actually be connected. That interests me as a person, but in my work it is an absolutely essential element. So, I’m always casting the net, and I’m listening, and I’m intuitively sensing connections. Sometimes I have a very clear sense of why that would be, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s very visceral. But it depends what I’m working on.

When I was doing An Injury to One, I was connecting labor history to the environment, which wasn’t so common back then. In this case, it was about a lot of different things, but just seeing this region where that murder unfolded in the 1940s — this is right before the classic civil rights movement explodes. Right in the epicenter of it. And what the film suggests is that this is bubbling up. It’s happening in Abbeville [Alabama], it’s happening in Montgomery, it’s happening nearby. Of course, that must be related to why violence against black people was intensifying, and why someone might be charged for it, and why the charges might disappear — because [the authorities] feared the social anger and community work in the next town over.

There’s an unreconcilable quality to your stories, especially here. There’s no closure. Rewatching Did You Wonder…, I was struck by the way you express this visually. Your opening shot — it’s actually the same shot repeated three times in a row, going down a country road. I’m sure it was in earlier presentations of this material as well, but this time, I started actively to wonder why you’d repeat such a shot like that. And I realized, “Oh right, this is about the fact that we’re never going to get to that other side. We’re just going to keep going down this same damn stretch of road forever.”

Right. Or things are going to get really hard. It’s interesting you noticed it because you’re right, it was in the performance version. But in the transformation of the performance into single-channel, one thing that really became a stronger element is the notion of loops and repetition, and things repeating themselves — like a record skipping, so to speak. And people notice it more.

Being a person with a kind of Marxist outlook, I’d always historically bought into this idea that of course society is moving forward. I’m not saying that a proper Marxist would look at it this way, but a sort of college student–aged Marxist would have this notion. It may not be moving forward as quickly as it should be, but it has fits and starts, and fundamentally you assume there’s a sense of progress. I’m wrestling with that question right now. I feel like instead it’s a punctuated equilibrium — there will be a rapid change and then long periods of stasis that will be backwards almost. I mean, I revere the civil rights movement; I’m so grateful that such ferocious, intense, brilliant people fought so hard for what was right. But I also feel like there’s been a lot lost since that movement declined.

So, yeah, there’s forward movements and there’s backward movement. Loops. Sudden jumps forward and then things get beaten back again. I had such a sense of that in Alabama — a place where people had fought so hard. Today, it sure seems like Selma was punished pretty badly for fighting back. I was stunned by how much the town seems like it had been punched. It reminded me of Butte, Montana. It reminded me of Detroit. It reminded me of these places where there had been this tremendous movement that had fought really hard, and it really seemed like that community had been punished. That was really unsettling to me. You just feel this erosion of the things that have been gained. The South is full of that. But so is the whole country.