EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Competiting in the Documentary program at Sundance ’08, Katrina Browne‘s “Traces of the Trade: A Story From The Deep North” is an exploration of the first-time filmmaker’s family history. Browne’s ancestors, the deWolfs, were the largest slave-trading family in United States history. From 1769 to 1820, three generations of De Wolfs brought over more than 10,000 Africans. Browne wrote to more than 200 family descendents, inviting them to join her in on a journey to trace the family’s legacy in a trip from Ghana to Cuba. Nine accepted the invitation. Sundance’s Geoffrey Gilmore says of “Trace”: “In this bicentennial year of the abolition of the slave trade, “Traces of the Trade” makes a potent statement about privilege and responsibility.”
“Traces of the Trade: A Story From The Deep North”
Director: Katrina Browne
Screenwriters: Katrina Browne, Alla Kovgan
Co-Directors: Alla Kovgan, Jude Ray
Producer: Katrina Browne
Cinematographer: Liz Dory
Editor: Alla Kovgan
U.S.A., 2007, 86 min., color, Sony HD Cam
Please introduce yourself.
I live in Boston, Massachusetts, and I’m surprised to find I’m 40. Prior to launching this nine-year film and family process, I developed community outreach plans for the film adaptation of Anna Deavere Smith‘s play about the LA riots, “Twilight: Los Angeles.” That job came out of my having written a Master’s thesis (at the Pacific School of Religion) on theater, film and democratic dialogue.
In my early twenties I co-founded an AmeriCorps program called Public Allies that now operates in 13 cities. You’ll have to watch the film to find out where I went to college! The geography of my childhood was very formative: a few years in Brussels, Belgium feeling like an outsider; but mainly, I grew up in Philadelphia, a few blocks from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, where my mom writes historic tours. So I like to say I’m a cornball for democracy: I cry easily; take it real seriously. I was also among those lucky enough to grow up down the street from an art house movie theater that showed independent and foreign films. Ritz Three!
What initially attracted you to filmmaking? What other creative outlets do you explore?
At twenty-eight, when I was in seminary, I received a booklet from my grandmother about our family history. When I read the sentence about the DeWolfs’ slave trading in Bristol, Rhode Island, I was shocked, but realized immediately that I already knew about my family’s role in the slave trade, but had somehow buried it. So the bigger shock was my amnesia. I started reading scholarly books, and quickly discovered that the DeWolfs, while exceptional in terms of the scope and scale of their slave trading, were part of a pattern of broad-based Northern complicity in slavery. Turns out slavery was not a Southern anomaly, it was the foundation of the whole country’s economy. But us white Northerners have conveniently forgotten this.
I realized that our family story was a microcosm of this larger narrative. Also while in seminary, earning a Masters in Theology, I wrote a thesis on Aristotle’s theories about the power of Greek tragedies to create empathy and emotional catharses that lead citizens to better judgment on how to create the good society (by contrast, Plato thought that rationality, stripped of emotion, was key). Having worked in DC in the nonprofit sector, I was increasingly convinced that black/white relations in this country are about a tangle of emotions/narratives that need to be addressed before there can be “rational” structural change to address persistent inequality. I knew I needed to tell this story of my family and the role of the North in slavery. I knew it should be told in an art form that can be experienced collectively, with a chance to talk afterwards. But people mostly go to movies these days, not plays. Besides, a verite documentary would allow me to show my real flesh and blood family dealing with real flesh and blood issues.
Have you made other films? How did you learn about filmmaking?
This is my first film. Fortunately I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area when I started. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the Film Arts Foundation, totally intimidated. I read the bulletin board and signed up for classes right away (there, and at the Bay Area Video Coalition). It’s amazing to have such easy access to so much experience: from “Documentary Scriptwriting” with Stephen Most to “Documentary Directing” with Les Blank, to distribution panels with Peter Broderick and Sam Green. I realized pretty quickly that what I’d learned from co-founding a non-profit–how to raise money and start up an operation from scratch–gave me skills that aren’t typically taught in film school. So I played catch up on the filmmaking side with these classes, while focusing on raising funds to hire others, because I knew I didn’t want to be behind the camera or the editing system.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
As a young adult I was deeply influenced by films about the Holocaust: Marcel Ophuls‘ “Le Chagrin et la pitie” (The Sorrow and the Pity); Alain Resnais‘ “Nuit et brouillard” (Night and Fog) and “Hiroshima mon amour“; and Michael Verhoeven‘s “Nasty Girl“. In college I specifically studied France’s complicity in the Holocaust… a clear precursor to dealing with the role of the North in slavery. These films shaped my concern about how to convey the suffering of an atrocity. So we have “empty” spaces, whispers, and spare indications. There is also the core question of how to depict from the perspective of perpetrators and descendants of perpetrators. Inspired by the films above, I actually became less obsessed with understanding the extreme inhumanity of my ancestors, but more with understanding the mundane, ordinary complicity of the majority of New Englanders who participated in a slave-based economy. That’s what really kept the wheels in motion. And that had more parallels to me and my family today: well-intentioned white folks who are still part of systems that do harm. Happily, my devotion to the issues, the content of the film, was matched by my editor/co-director Alla Kovgan‘s devotion to the art form. She cared about the issues too, but was steadfast in always thinking about what the film needed, as a film. Her true love and calling is experimental film, particularly dance film, so she was particularly attuned to rhythm and motion in “Traces of the Trade.” We’d have pitched battles at times: “Art first!” “Politics first!” We hope we found the right balance.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
We finished principal photography one week before September 11th. Funding just dried up after that. It was a slow process of building back up, including my relocating to Boston. When I was finally able to hire an editor I was convinced that I needed a veteran, since I was a first-timer. I was honored to be able to start working with Bill Anderson. But he said to me one day: “You know Alla (associate editor at the time) is phenomenal. You should make her the editor. She’s great and will charge less than me!” To which I responded: “But not only is she new to feature-length editing, she’s from Russia! This is a quintessentially American story.” But I knew he was right, so Alla and I took the plunge together, though I think it caused another set-back in funding, because neither of us were known quantities. And we had our work cut out for us: to make a 90-minute film that covered important “objective” history, highly charged contemporary race issues, a narrative arc covering three countries and ten characters (who many viewers would expect not to like)–all with my voice as a compelling through-line.
We were both thrown many curve balls and excuses to quit, but we maintained our faith in each other and the film. With many helping hands, it worked out. One additional note on the sensitivities around content: we had many wonderful rough cut viewers and reviewers over the years. What was so striking though, was that people were really opinionated, and their opinions were often diametrically opposed. More history, less history. More family, less family. More politics, less politics. There were formal considerations, but the opinions seemed to boil down to people’s conflicting feelings on the exact right note that they thought descendants of slave traders should strike. There was thus an incredible dialogue on race going on behind the scenes. It made the process of “finding the film” and finding my voice really challenging, but it kept us focused on the point of it all.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
We’re excited to talk to distributors who’d like to join us in bringing the film to a broad public this year. 2008 is the bicentennial of the U.S. abolition of the slave trade (the law, signed by President Thomas Jefferson went into effect January 1, 1808). Major cultural institutions in the U.S. are now organizing commemorative and educational events, partly inspired by 2007 events in England where they’ve been recognizing the bicentennial of their close of the trade (including with the release of Michael Apted‘s “Amazing Grace“). The bicentennial is an ideal moment to reframe the myth of Northern innocence and Southern sole guilt, since the slave trade was primarily conducted on Northern ships, with Northern trade goods, and Northern financial backing. And in terms of the black/white divide today, it’s always a good time to keep digging into the heart of the matter. So we look forward to talking to viewers and to the press as well.
What are some of your recent favorite films?
Semi-recent favorites: “Cache” by Michael Haneke, “The Lives of Others” by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, “In the Realms of the Unreal” by Jessica Yu, “The Chances of the World Changing“, by Eric Daniel Metzgar and Nell Carden Grey.
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
To use this powerful art form to touch people, bringing out the better angels of our natures… in the public square, beyond the theater and television screen.
Please tell us about any upcoming projects?
For now I’m focused on getting this film out in the world, developing our distribution partnerships, and our education and community dialogue plans. I have a few ideas in my pocket for future projects.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.