This year’s Autumn Reporting Fellow Film Festival featured two films about confronting racism in America produced by Reporting Fellows Curtis Franklin, Gopika Ajay, and Annick Laurent. On Tuesday, September 20, 2022, the films were screened for a live virtual audience, followed by a Q&A session with Ajay and Franklin.
The first film screened was The Friendliest Small Town in America, directed by 2020 Northwestern University Post-Graduate Reporting Fellow Curtis Franklin. The documentary is set in Murray, Kentucky, the film’s namesake, where a statue of Robert E. Lee in the town square inspired protest and public debate. Following the efforts of Murray State University football coach Sherman Neal II, who set out to have the statue removed for what it represents to Black Americans, the film reveals a Southern town grappling with its history and self identity more than 150 years after the Civil War. Facing racist threats from neighbors and inaction from the courts, Neal and his family must make difficult decisions for their future.
“In learning about the Civil War, American history, the intersection with the present day… Being able to capture this and leave it as almost like a time capsule for that time, summer 2020, I hope it’s something that’s bigger than me,” Franklin said.
The second film, To The Plate, directed by 2021 Columbia Journalism School Reporting Fellows Gopika Ajay and Annick Laurent, is set in Chinatown, New York City. Since the first COVID-19 lockdowns in the U.S., Chinatown’s businesses and community have suffered from isolation and anti-Asian racism, especially senior citizens. Searching for ways to take care of their elders, young restaurateur Moonlyn Tsai and her partner Yin Chang start a program to deliver fresh-cooked meals with handwritten notes to New York City’s Asian seniors every Wednesday. The film follows the couple’s journey through the pandemic lockdown and their efforts to strengthen their community in times of hardship.
“It is about racism, it is about xenophobia, but primarily for us [filmmakers] it is about the strength of the community and to stay positive when a lot of things were going wrong around them,” Ajay said.
The film festival had 49 attendees who engaged with the Reporting Fellow filmmakers and their films. “I was impressed with how each film captured a sense of community and the possibility that it could continue in spite of obstacles… My world opened up in both films, and left me wanting to know more about the participants—and the film-makers,” wrote one viewer.
Another audience member wrote, “It helped me to understand how to cover breaking news with an original perspective.”
Congratulations to these Reporting Fellows on sharing their films, their hard work and dedication!