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Interviews: Filmmakers Lonnie Edwards, Robert Carnilius at the 2015 Chicago Black Harvest Film Festival

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CHICAGO – The 21st edition of the Black Harvest Film Festival will open on August 8th, 2015, at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Through film and video, the festival explores the stories, images, heritage and history of the black experience in the United States and around the world. Two passionate short film examples of the festival mission are found in a couple of Chicago filmmakers, Lonnie Edwards (“A Ferguson Story”) and Robert Carnilius (“How to Catch a Criminal”).

Both films, in different ways, take on the current issue of law enforcement interaction towards African Americans. Lonnie Edwards’ “A Ferguson Story” is a lyrical and emotional overview of the clash between black U.S. citizens and authorities in the wake of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri. “How to Catch a Criminal,” by Robert Carnilius, is a sharp-sticked satire on 1950s era “how-to” short films, capturing with pungent humor the unfairness of suspicions that African American men live with every single day, in their relationship with law enforcement.

A Ferguson Story
‘A Ferguson Story’ by Director Lonnie Edwards
Photo credit: Black Harvest Film Festival

The 2015 edition of the Black Harvest Film Festival kicks off at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on Saturday, August 8th, with “A Black Harvest Feast,” five short films celebrating the essence of what the festival is about. The festival continues through September 3rd, with a many screenings of film and video works. For schedule information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Lonnie Edwards and Robert Carnilius talked with HollywoodChicago.com in anticipation of their screenings at the 2015 Black Harvest Festival. They will also be present at the screenings, part of the “Made in Chicago” short film program – Sunday, August 9th (5:30pm) and Thursday, August 13th (8:15pm).

StarLonnie Edwards of “A Ferguson Story”

HollywoodChicago.com: I saw the first cut of ‘A Ferguson Story,’ and it contained more voices and more raw emotion from those voices. What was behind your decision to re-edit the movie, to cut it more like the present lyrical and more symbolic short film?

Lonnie Edwards: The events were continually happening, and I combined that with the feedback I had gotten from the showings of the original cut, and it because obvious that in my mind I didn’t want to take the audience there. My essence as a filmmaker is to allow people to look at it as if it was an actual piece of art, and bring something back to themselves in whatever interpretation they want. The original voices in the first cut ignited a certain emotion, but I wanted people to naturally feel those emotions within themselves, so cutting out that dialogue now allows the viewer to whatever that emotion is – uplifted or angry, whatever they feel.

HollywoodChicago.com: You seem fascinated with the circumstances and confrontations of being black in American society. How is your award winning film ‘Parietal Guidance’ an indicator of what drove you to create ‘A Ferguson Story’?

Edwards: It’s interesting, because since I am a young black man I’ve experienced confrontations with police officers and incidences of that nature. I understand that throughout society and throughout many lines, we all have stereotypes about each other. It pushed me to make ‘Parietal Guidance,’ and when I was on tour with that film at the various film festivals, that is when all the events started coming to fruition – Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, Baltimore.

So as an artist I feel it is my duty to bring things like that to my work, and also open the mind of the viewer. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten less personally upset about discrimination, because I know that it happens. Everybody can be discriminated against, and the best way to stop it from happening is to not constantly nail into the coffin of black discrimination, but to nail into the consequence that we all need to be on an equal and level playing field. We all need to understand the plight of each other.

HollywoodChicago.com: You spent time in Ferguson, Missouri, and experienced the ramifications in your own soul regarding the Grand Jury decision. How has the whole incident affected your consciousness regarding the African American experience in the U.S.?

Edwards: I was in Ferguson for four days, and it was a calm period. It went from about 100,000 people who were experiencing the protest, but once that wave blew over there were maybe 200 people. I spoke to them about different things, I feel like it’s more about the people of color in the United States want to be in position where they can trust the government authority, but we really can’t.

I thought that when the Michael Brown incident went down, I thought that this type of incident would be more difficult for the police to get away with, but that hasn’t been the case. It’s only gotten worse. It’s important for activists and artists to continually push an opposing ideology, so people will continue to stand up against what is going on.

HollywoodChicago.com: How does art like ‘A Ferguson Story’ become the greatest weapon against perceptions and realities in law enforcement interaction with African American men?

Lonnie, Alinah Edwards
Lonnie Edwards of ‘A Ferguson Story’ with daughter Alinah in 2014
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

Edwards: One of the most notable feedbacks I’ve received from audiences when they’ve watched the film, is actually seeing the process of what happened. To use an analogy, we eat processed meat, and it’s wrapped up very pretty in the grocery store. When you see a film about how the animals are slaughtered, it becomes a different perception – some people actually stop eating meat.

So I think showing what happened in its rawest form, and making it hard to watch, makes it difficult to just turn the other cheek. It’s important for all artists to do that, but especially in film and music, because the potential to reach an audience goes into the millions. Artists can change the way people look at things, because they can educate.

HollywoodChicago.com: You have a daughter and a son. How do you speak to them about race perceptions in America, while at the same time desiring an innocence of childhood for them?

Edwards: I am completely honest with my kids, in regards to those issues. They both sat through the editing process of ‘A Ferguson Story’ and talked to me what was going on – I think it was educational for them. My daughter is 12 years old, my son is 11, and they know a lot, and they’re open to learning and understanding new things. Soon they will be teenagers, and Mike Brown was 18 years old. These are ages that are coming up for them, and so these are lessons that are necessary to know and understand.

There are good law enforcers, and there are bad ones. You have to know all your rights, and I’ve explained that to them. But I feel that every citizen needs to know those rights, because when you get involved in a confrontation, you need to know what to do., and especially younger people need to know that.

HollywoodChicago.com: The issues raised in circumstances like Ferguson and Baltimore continue to simmer below the surface of race relations in America. What, if anything, do you believe that the law enforcement side and the persons of color side have learned from instances such as these?

Edwards: My completely honest answer is I don’t think law enforcement has learned anything. And I honestly feel that people of color hasn’t learned anything too positive. If I focus on anything it would be educating yourself regarding your rights, and moving forward to being more involved in politics and the ballot box. Get people into office that will do something in regard to the issues that have emerged.

It’s tough, because have two opposing sides that I don’t think they want to meet in the middle. The fuse is short, and when the police and black citizens get together, there is an immediate mistrust. Law enforcement needs to be more professional, and the people need to get the right leaders into office to create further change.

HollywoodChicago.com: What opportunities does the Black Harvest Film Festival have to offer you, in the context of your film, and especially with the issues of the last year?

Edwards: I’m extremely happy that I was chosen to be in this festival with my film, it was really important to me to get it into Black Harvest. There are other films that are close to the nature of my subject matter, and I see ‘A Ferguson Story’ as sort of an anchor of what the festival is doing overall this year. I’m just beginning another journey with this film, I’m in eight other film festivals, and I definitely feel like this is a film that needs to be shown to the people. I think people take a lot away from participating in film festivals like Black Harvest.

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