NAT TURNER: A Troublesome Property

Slave Rebellions

Filmmaker Q&A

Charles Burnett (director/writer), Frank Christopher (producer/co-writer/co-editor) and Kenneth Greenberg (co-producer/co-writer) share their thoughts on creative collaboration, filmmaking strategies and the subject of Nat Turner.

What inspired you to make this program?

Frank Christopher: I have made many documentaries about historical subjects, and I had become dissatisfied with my own and other filmmakers’ approaches to history on film, which reduced the complexity of historical events to a “well-told story.” The subject of Nat Turner, with all its ambiguity, intrigued and provoked me to explore the complexities in the recounting of history events and personalities.

What was the hardest part of this three-way collaboration?

FC: The hardest part was also what generated the creative energy to produce this film: reconciling our diverse backgrounds, personal styles and professional approaches to the work. Our acceptance of each other’s unique approach to Nat Turner and William Styron’s novel provided for a wide-open discussion, and eventually a strong creative and personal bond between us.

How did you develop the filmmaking strategy you used?

Kenneth Greenberg: We talked and talked incessantly. The three of us traveled around the country together, filming the interviews and talking all the time. The key decisions were made during a retreat in which we worked 16 hours every day for several days. The decision to mix interviews, archival footage and dramatic recreations was the most difficult. But it made logical sense since our focus was on documents and works of literature and we needed to dramatize them in order to make them understandable to a film audience.

What do you hope to achieve with this film?

Charles Burnett: Several things. Hopefully, the film will initiate a debate on race and by doing so, perhaps get us to a better place in terms of black/white issues. I also think that part of our society suffers from selective amnesia and they need to be awakened.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

CB: The possibilities of doing something at some point that will have a positive effect and perhaps be inspirational. The main thing is to do what you can to end the chaos and madness that grips our society and communities.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

KG: Public television allows us to reach exactly the kind of audience who can appreciate our complicated topic and approach.

What didn't you get done when you were making your film?

KG: When we began the film, we wanted to tell the story of how the rebellion was remembered in Southampton County today. But we could not get people to talk about this openly on camera.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you'd be doing?

CB: I think I would either be in electronics or play an instrument for a living.

What do you think most inspires the filmmaker process?

CB: Having something to say that comes from seeing and feeling the horrendous wrongs that people suffer.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

KG: Develop a love for poverty, sweat, great highs and lows, creative and exciting work, fundraising and long waits.

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

FC: Frederick Weisman, Alain Resnais and Sergei Eisenstein.

What sparks your creativity?

FC: Once I feel totally immersed in the subject, I feel I become part of the film that I am making. Ideas flow easily, and I experience a creative energy that allows me to work for days without sleep.

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