When the St. Louis International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday, a host of filmmakers will be coming to St. Louis — and one congressman.
U.S. Representative John Lewis, the subject of the documentary Get in the Way
, plans to attend the free screening at Washington University’s Brown Hall Auditorium on Sunday — a late-breaking RSVP that has thrilled the film's director, Kathleen Dowdey.
"We're really thrilled to be showing the film in St. Louis," she says. "The producers, the editors, they're all going to be there too."
The film made its official premiere a few months ago at a screening hosted by the Directors Guild of America, but the SLIFF screening will be its festival premiere — a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers. In fact, Dowdey says, they eschewed higher profile festivals to come here first.
"One of the reasons we applied to SLIFF is because of Ferguson," Dowdey says. "We thought it would be a great place to show the film early on and link it to what's happening right now in our community. It's very relevant."
The one-hour documentary focuses on the life of Lewis, a theological student turned civil rights activist who took part in the Freedom Rides challenging bus terminal segregation, helped plan the famous March on Washington, and led, with others, the march in Selma recently memorialized in the Hollywood film of the same name. Decades later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
As the film stresses, Lewis was a smart young man with dreams of being a preacher. But he had to learn to brush off his mother's advice not to get into trouble. "Don't get in trouble, don't get in the way," she told him.
"But I got in trouble," Lewis says. "Good trouble. Necessary trouble." He ended up getting arrested two dozen times — and getting beaten repeatedly. But he endured the beatings without turning to violence — and in the end, his resistance led to change.
But while his life is the stuff movies are made of, the film proved to be an odyssey three decades in the making. Dowdey first met Lewis in the early '90s. "I interviewed him for another documentary, and he was just absolutely riveting," she says. "I immediately asked him if he'd be interested in having us do another documentary, but this one about him."
Lewis said yes, but the catch was that he wasn't all that well known at the time, Dowdey recalls. "He was one of those leaders of the movement who really didn't seek the limelight." That was before Barack Obama was elected president (an event that thrust Lewis in the spotlight when he reversed his endorsement of Hillary Clinton to back the freshman senator from Illinois) and before Selma
reminded America of what it might rather forget. Still, they shot some footage, and intermittently kept shooting.
Last year, buoyed by Selma
's success at the box office, Dowdey was finally able to get to a rough cut. It took a Kickstarter to bring the film over the finish line. Blame the state of documentary filmmaking today more than any prejudice against the topic. "Sources for grants and even foundation money have become very limited," she says. "We're all scrambling to find new sources."
Dowdey grew up in Washington, D.C., but came here to study at Webster University as an undergrad in the 1970s. She credits the school for making her who she is today. "The music and the fine arts program were really unusual," she recalls. "I had amazing teachers." Beyond that, she says, the climate of social activism at Webster in the '70s was key: "It influenced me a lot."
In the last year, she's found her focus returning to St. Louis. She sees what's happened in Ferguson as the perfect backdrop to revisit Lewis' remarkable career.
"His approach to dealing with these issues — not only his commitment to non-violence, but also his commitment to human rights and fighting the injustices of a militarized police force — it all goes back to what he witnessed," she says. "Certainly one of the reasons I made the film, and one of the reasons the congressman got behind it, was that he's spent his whole life addressing these issues in a way that creates change."
Get in the Way
screens twice during the festival. The first screening, at 7 p.m. Sunday at Wash. U.’s Brown Hall Auditorium, will be attended by Rep. Lewis and feature remarks from Dowdey. The event is free and open to the public, with admission on a first-come, first-served basis. The film will screen again at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Missouri History Museum, along with the short film “Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot." Admission again is on a first-come, first-served basis.
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