On Sunday, it will be exactly three months since violence at a white nationalist rally tore through Charlottesville, turning the name of the quaint Virginia university town into a hashtag for racial hatred overnight.
But how that August weekend in Charlottesville will be most remembered is now in the hands of many different storytellers who will shape a shared history. Will it be seen primarily as the place where an ascendant white power movement came out of online nooks and crannies and showed its face to the world? Will it be remembered for those who took to the streets to stand up to the marchers and keep their rally from taking place? Or will it be recalled as a failure of leaders and police to keep the two sides apart and prevent a deadly outcome?
All of those questions are on the minds of filmmakers Brian Wimer and Jackson Landers, who have just finished making “Charlottesville: Our Streets,” a riveting 90-minute documentary of the events surrounding the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally. They will screen the film Sunday at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville.
Produced at breakneck speed — the pair said they put their lives on hold to finish in time for the festival — the film tells the story of the rally that convulsed the city and the nation, and continues to resonate in political and cultural conversations.
The goal, they said, was to create a documentary as objective as possible so viewers would have a common understanding of what happened.
“This film is not an editorial, and some people will be upset by that,” Landers said. “But you can’t have good editorials if you don’t have a good set of facts first.”
Landers, 39, a journalist, and Wimer, 48, a filmmaker and director of a local art park, are longtime Charlottesville residents who were in town when the rally took place. But they didn’t really know each other until Landers decided he wanted to make the documentary and was directed by friends to get in touch with Wimer. With a small budget — “in the low tens of thousands,” they say — the pair soon got to work.
By early September, they were fully immersed in scouring videos and interviewing participants, from clergy members, white nationalists and Charlottesville residents to militia members, Antifa counterprotesters and medics who provided first aid to the many who were injured that day.
From the outset, they wanted the story to be told by people who lived and worked in the town. And Charlottesville is clearly interested to see the story the filmmakers have told. The screening Sunday afternoon at the 1,100-seat Paramount Theater is sold out.
“It was really frustrating for us to have the rest of the world come here and tell us what our story was. People who don’t have the slightest clue about the social fabric here trying to make conclusions about what this means racially and socially for Charlottesville,” Landers said. “This was a way of us taking our own narrative back.”
What they quickly learned was that even though everyone went through the same event, their experiences were often very different. Accounts, even of the same moment, could vary wildly. The imperative for the filmmakers, Wimer said, was to “get to what provably happened so that people can have a common understanding that isn’t bogged down with rumor and innuendo.”
They also wanted to know if the event changed the people who were involved in it, or if they learned more about who they were.
One of the more powerful moments in the film is an interview with Pam Mendosa, a retired nurse who had volunteered to help the counterprotesters and ended up aiding a white nationalist leader who had been pepper-sprayed.
“He thanked me, shook my hand and left,” Mendosa says. Choking back tears she added, “I have to think I have to thank him because it was difficult afterward to realize that I can walk my talk. That I really can treat people who believe so differently than I do.”
Creating a documentary that captured the dizzying entirety of the event would have been impossible without the crowdsourced footage the filmmakers gleaned from local residents and social media — there are more than 500 videos from the event posted to YouTube. They eventually got permission from more than 30 individuals to use footage they then pieced together to create a chronology. It begins with the torchlight march that Friday night by neo-Nazis through the University of Virginia campus and ends with deeply moving scenes on the same campus five nights later at a candlelight vigil.
In between those radically different expressions of fire is a tale filled with harrowing images: the unexpected arrival of a fully armed militia that Saturday morning, the massive brawls that police stood back and watched, the death of Heather Heyer and injuries to 19 others when a Nazi sympathizer allegedly drove through a crowd of protesters, and the deep despair and anger coursing through all of it.
The film captures a whole that was unseeable even to participants and observers in Charlottesville that weekend.
“It wasn’t physically possible for one person to experience all of what happened that day,” Landers said. “People say, ‘Oh I was there, so I’m an expert.’ No. Just being there doesn’t make you an expert. You need all of these different perspectives to even come close to the truth.”
The truth, of course, can be elusive, particularly when telling a story about a weekend marked by mayhem.
Video shot in the middle of Market Street, where some of the most violent clashes took place, feels like scenes from a hellish nightmare, with masked and helmeted men and women swinging at each other with bats and bars, spraying chemical irritants into each other’s faces and screaming insults in moments of primal rage. The presence of so many individuals armed with semiautomatic weapons, rifles and handguns is a chilling reminder of how much worse the rally could have been if it had disintegrated into a shootout, a point noted by several interviewed for the film.
While the violence and chaos of the weekend is understandably the focus of the documentary, Landers and Wimer counter the madness with reflective interviews that allow participants to explain how and why they took part.
“One common element we found in talking to everyone for this film is that everybody felt that they were in the right, and they all felt compelled to be here, as if they didn’t even have a choice,” Wimer said. “Whether it was clergy or antifa or alt-right or militia. This was somehow a place where they all thought that they were the good guys.”
Conducting interviews and gathering information soon after the rally was critical to Landers and Wimer because they worried that memories become less reliable with the passage of time.
“The longer you wait after something big like this, if they’ve told their story too many times, you’re not getting the actual memory,” Landers said. “If someone shows up to make a documentary two years from now, they’re not going to be able to get what we can get right now.”
With the race to get the documentary finished, Landers and Wimer haven’t had time to focus on future plans for it. But they hope to take it to college campuses across the country for screenings and discussions. And they would like to see it have a wider distribution to encourage more dialogue.
“Charlottesville was a watershed moment,” Landers said. “We were realizing even that day that we were ground zero for something that was changing the face of this country. And it’s still an ongoing conversation.”