‘A different art:’ Documentary series highlights community stories

‘We Tell: Environments of Race and Place’ focuses on power of community media


Back-to-back screenings are usually similar.

But on Wednesday, Squeaky Wheel challenged this notion, screening everything from a film about upcoming fatherhood to a film on sheep becoming zombies.

 The stories themselves sound quite different, but they all focused on a similar theme: community.

Squeaky Wheel hosted “We Tell: Environments of Race and Place.” The Wednesday event was part of a traveling exhibition, “We Tell: Fifty Years of Participatory Community Media: On the Frontlines of Politics and Place, 1967-2017.” The exhibition –– curated by Louis Massiah, executive director of the Scribe Video Center, and Patricia Zimmermann –– hopes to use documentaries to “chronicle the hidden histories” in specific communities and highlight “needs for social and political change,” according to Lightbox Film Center. The Squeaky Wheel event focused on “immigration, migration and racial identities unique to a specific environment” and featured six short documentaries, each released between 1967 and 2016. 

Documentary “Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man” took up 39 minutes of the 91-minute program, but for good reason. 

The 1975 film detailed the Buffalo Creek Flood of 1972, when a Pittston Coal Company coal-waste dam collapsed, killing 125 people and leaving 4,000 homeless. Instead of focusing solely on the displaced West Virginia community, the documentary analyzed the cause, Pittston’s reaction –– which insisted it was an “act of God” –– and provided facts condemning the company.

Jason Livingston, the project’s research assistant, believes the film’s research-based approach brought a different perspective to the program.

“Right now, in a lot of the documentary communities, we’re in the middle of a very character-heavy moment and a story-heavy moment,” Livingston said. “There was something quite refreshing about reckoning with a project that is almost ruthlessly forensic and diagnoses the situation.”

“Who I Became,” a contrasting documentary, was more character focused. The 2003 documentary tells the story of first-generation Cambodian-American Pounloeu Chea’s experience on parole, as he struggled to stay out of prison while awaiting the birth of his first child.

The film still emphasized the voice of the community, though. At a Q&A session for the event, Zimmermann explained that the film originated from Vietnamese director Spencer Nakasako. He gave a group of Vietnamese youth equipment and let them make their own films. Chea’s group then created “Who I Became.”

Buffalo State media studies student Conrad Burgos Jr. said he attended the program not just because Zimmermann was speaking but also because of how the various documentaries were made.

 “They feel different than most narrative stories, or even Netflix stuff,” Burgos said. “And that’s because they’re made with people who the problems actually matter to.”

 The program’s screening at Squeaky Wheel also marked its New York premiere. Before the screening, Zimmermann explained that she was interested in breaking the binary of art premiering in either New York City or California.

 “Part of this project, especially as Louis Massiah conceived, was that it’d be national and not be stuck on either coast, that it would represent community groups and community media across the country to show the diversity of America,” Zimmerman said.

 Curator Ekrem Serdar explained he brought the project to Squeaky Wheel because the spot is a “significant hub for participatory media.”

 While none of the stories told related to Buffalo directly, the environmental and community-focused messages were a perfect fit for the city. No matter what year the program selections were released, their messages still rang true.

 “What’s chilling about the topics in these six programs is that they were urgent 50 years ago, and they’re urgent now,” Zimmerman said. “It shows you how much work needs to be done by people on the ground to take power back and to rewrite the script so that the world can be a place we all want to live in.”

Alex Whetham is an asst. Arts editor and can be reached at Alex.Whetham@ubspectrum.com.


Alex Whetham is an asst. arts editor for The Spectrum