In November of last year, protests led by a group of African American students at the University of Missouri erupted and caused a national media storm. Last night, only four months after the events that led to the resignation of school President Tim Wolfe, the True/False Film Fest premiered “Concerned Student 1950,” a 30 minute documentary about the protests made by undergraduates at the university.
The film offers a rare glimpse inside the demonstrations. Rare because the student activists, who call themselves Concerned Student 1950, made a conscience choice to shut out the local and national media as they slept in the middle of the campus quad. The film covers the big moments that became national news, but more than anything it brings to light just how fearful and unwelcome African American students felt on campus and the tremendous emotional toll those two weeks took on the group. The protests were sparked by graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike in demand of Wolfe’s resignation following a number of racially charged events on campus and the administrations’ failure to address African American students’ concerns. As Butler visibly becomes weak and President Wolfe drags his heels, the film captures just how dire the stakes were for the members of Concerned Student 1950.
The emotions captured in the film were evident in last night’s audience, which was packed with University of Missouri students for whom the issues addressed in the film were clearly still raw. Before the film even began the filmmakers received a standing ovation, while five of the original members of Concerned Student 1950 took to the stage to make clear their struggle did not end with Wolfe’s resignation. After the screening the group led the audience in one of their protest chants, while receiving their second standing ovation of the night. A surprise guest in the audience was Spike Lee, who Indiewire has learned is interested in using some of the footage from the documentary for his own ESPN project “2 Fists Up,” about the Missouri football teams’ role in the protests. (The film will be released digitally on May 31.)
True/False co-founder David Wilson introduced the movie, admitting that circumstances leading to last night’s premiere were unusual, as he himself only saw a cut of the film last week and that normally a last-minute addition like this would be out of the question. The school and film’s connection to the festival though runs deep. A number of the festival screenings take place on campus and many of the panel discussions take place at the University’s Murray School of Journalism, where the “Concerned Student 1950” filmmakers Varun Bajaj, Adam Dietrich and Kellan Marvin study.
In addition, the student filmmakers’ professor is Robert Greene, a filmmaker himself (“Kate Plays Christine,” which premiered at Sundance in January) whose work is a staple at True/False; while the film’s producers are Laura Poitras’ Field of Vision, who sponsored this year’s True/False panel discussions. Just to show how intertwined the film became with the festival, co-director Dietrich told Indiewire the first person who gave the students the idea to start filming the protests was True/False programmer Chris Boeckmann.
Field of Vision will premiere “Concerned Student 1950” online in approximately two weeks.