Interview with Filmmaker Dee Garceau (A MASSACRE IN MEMPHIS)

A MASSACRE IN MEMPHIS played to rave reviews at the August 2019 Documentary Short Film Festival.

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?

Dee Garceau: I’m a U.S. History professor who was living in Memphis and heard about a controversial incident that tore the city apart in 1866. It was a racialized massacre that noone talked about. I wanted to investigate. So I created a course around that research, in which students could read the firsthand testimony of witnesses and survivors, and we visited the sites where the massacre took place. This made it real, and these students became the film production team. Because the massacre had been swept under the rug for so long, we felt a responsibility to bring it to light. And because these students were making a film about it, they took ownership in ways I hadn’t seen within traditional academic courses.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

Four months of research and production plus editing a rough cut– that was our one-semester course. Then a handful of the students continued work on it with me for another semester, scripting and shooting additional scenes and interviews; and finally I worked on the editing for six months after that to create the final cut. These time frames are misleading, however, because all of us were navigating several other courses at the same time. So our work on the film was intermittent during those months, but focused and intense each time we were on it.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

Unjust massacre.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

a) Doing the research and production as a course meant that the students and I could not devote ourselves full time to it; we all had to fit it in around our other course responsibilities, me as a professor teaching fulltime, and my students as undergrads with a full course load. So coordinating our TIME for interviews, shoots, voiceover recordings, and editing sessions was a constant challenge. That said, it became a labor of love; we all got so invested in it, we would put in late hours and all-nighters when necessary.

b) A racialized massacre is painful to look at. We (film crew students and I, plus local actors whom we recruited for reenactment scenes) had to navigate our own feelings as an interracial group dealing with a story of violent race prejudice. For African American actors in the reenactment scenes, this brought up hurt and anger. For white film crew, this brought up sadness, anger, guilt, and fear. Working together to tell the story honestly got us through those painful places.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I was thrilled to hear people respond to the topic, the cinematic techniques, and the larger questions raised by the film. Some commented on the need to know more about historical incidents like this; others remarked on our uses of fire and water imagery and sounds to tell the story. Still others said it made them reflect on race relations and racialized violence today. I love hearing audience feedback – thank you for making and sharing videos of this!

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

The early responses to my investigation – “What was that?” “The Memphis what?” provided the idea for juxtaposing the history of denial about the massacre with the actual testimony of witnesses and survivors. The opening scenes practically wrote themselves!

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

The Shawshank Redemption is beautifully woven. Twenty Feet From Stardom, the doc film about back-up singers for headliner rock bands, is compelling. Buck, about a horse trainer who found his way out of an abused childhood, is deeply moving.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are your feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

Film Freeway is an excellent submission platform, informative and easy to use. Thank you Film Freeway!!

9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

Oh man, it varies, depending upon what’s going on in my life. “Soundtrack to your life,” right? Sometimes it’s Stevie Ray Vaughn, “Texas Flood;” sometimes its Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World;” other times it’s Eminem,”Lose Yourself;” still other times its The Script, “Hall of Fame;” sometimes it’s Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony;” other times it’s U2, “One Love.”

10. What is next for you? A new film?

This fall I’ll be teaching a course called “Gender in the American West” at the University of Montana, Missoula — we’ll overturn mythic images of Indians, cowboys, miners, and homesteaders; get into the human stories that prove different. (Unfortunately the format won’t allow filmmaking this time – too bad!). In the future I’d like to offer a course inviting Native American students and African-American students to teach each other dance moves from the powwow arena and from step shows, respectively. Then I’d turn loose teams of both to research something from their history, and to choreograph a dance using both genres to tell the story they’ve discovered. I’d have a third group of students film the whole process and make a doc of it. But first I need to write the grants, raise the money.