The opening lines of this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Battleground,” by Kwesi Thomas and Mark Bone examine how skin color has become just that…a battleground. The short captures the particular discomfort of having to argue for one’s value in a society that should care instead of question. Kwesi, a Black man, powerfully conveys these feelings to his co-director Mark, a white man, in the wake of George Floyd’s death last May.
Through archival footage and a series of introspective discussions and interviews, this collaborative documentary attempts to allow “non-Black people to partially enter into that shifting, paradoxical place which is being Black in North America. The film [is] an attempt to articulate the confusing, vertiginous, experience of one’s skin being a site of social conflict, a ‘battleground,’” states Thomas. “It [is] not, however, an attempt to clarify that experience.”
Now nearly a year after Floyd’s death, the day after Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict, and in the wake of countless other Black deaths at the hands of police, “Battleground” is entering the conversation. Our team at Vimeo has found it to be essential viewing as we ourselves process these events and their meaning.
We reached out to both Kwesi Thomas and Mark Bone ahead of the release to better understand the impetus for making this film and how it has challenged them.
On the film’s inspiration:
Mark: “After the death of George Floyd I decided to reach out to a couple of my closer Black friends, including Kwesi, to check in and see how they were doing. This event seemed to give them a platform they might not have felt they had in the past to be more honest about their experiences with racism growing up with their white friends.
Soon I realized how little I understood about their journeys and how shocking some of their encounters had been. I asked Kwesi if I could begin recording our conversations on camera so more people could understand his experience. I had the camera gear but Kwesi had the vision.”
On why being heard in this moment feels different:
Kwesi: “It is difficult to pinpoint a particular situation that I did not feel heard, because in many ways it seems that the structure of our society is such that most people go their whole lives without being deeply engaged by others. However, in the vast majority of my friendships with white people pre-George Floyd, which also happen to be the majority of my friendships, I had never shared my experiences of racism and Blackness.
There are many reasons for this, but the strongest one is that bringing up race as a Black person puts you in a compromised social position. It is almost as if you are disturbing some sort of social contract, like when one brings up religion or politics at a dinner party. And since the vast majority of non-Black people have no point of relation to empathize with experiences of racism, you are lucky to be met with anything more than “I’m so sorry that happened to you” when sharing your story. When George Floyd was murdered, for the first time in my life it felt like race was a public conversation that could be broached. This film is an attempt to seize that moment of opportunity, however transitory it may be.”
On the film’s collaborators and interview subjects:
Mark: “These people in this film are really just my friends from Toronto. They are people in my community willing to speak about their experiences and share their challenges. Despite the length of time I’ve known some of them, I haven’t ever sat down with them and directly spoken about race and racism. Race can be a challenging conversation to engage with so it felt like we had an opportunity based on everyone’s willingness after the George Floyd events to invite an audience in on their personal experiences with race/racism.
I wanted to illuminate that racism can occur in small ways but still have a lifelong impact. A knee on a man’s neck for 8 minutes is shocking but I didn’t want to overlook the smaller moments of injustice that don’t make news headlines. The film explores these moments.”
Kwesi: “It has been said to the point of cliche, but what is necessary in these moments is firstly listening. Only when one has listened to and internalized the stories of Black persons, are they prepared to speak or act productively on the issues which face them.”
Mark: “I don’t think allyship is just repeating that racism is bad on Instagram. In my experience, allyship is as unique as is the individual that you’re speaking with. Before we started filming we conducted about a dozen interviews with different members I know from the Black community in Toronto and every person had a different reaction and response when we asked “how can I help?” If someone is willing to share it then I think the best place to start is to ask about the nuances of their journey, understanding the events and emotions. I rather ask more questions right now. The more I know, the better I can help.”
On challenges faced:
Kwesi: “For my part, the most difficult part of making the film was forcing myself to re-enter the vulnerable space which was necessary to produce it for a sustained period of time. When we began the film, fires were still burning protesting the death of George Floyd, but as we continued over the course of the next 6 months or so, public concern began to wane and the space of openness on speaking about race began to close. In the months that followed, it again felt that speaking about Blackness was impolite, and in some way oppressive. Maintaining vulnerability in that time was difficult.”
Mark: “For me personally, the greatest challenge is my racial background. I’m a white, Caucasian male so this isn’t my story to tell. This was the tension for me constantly, I want to help but I can’t let my voice seep into this particular film because it isn’t my story to tell. Everyone on screen in this film was extremely generous and gracious with my participation in creating this documentary. Social media isn’t my passion or strength but filmmaking is so I felt like my efforts in terms of fighting racism are best served through that medium.
Kwesi and I spent many hours in the edit suite discussing each scene and piece of dialogue in the film to see if it created space for intrigue and empathy. We kept shooting extra little scenes to try and land the themes of the film in the final edit. There are also many scenes we filmed that never made it to screen.”
On advice to aspiring filmmakers:
Mark: “If you want to make a film, start today. Don’t overthink it or stress about the gear. Start filming, editing, earnestly examining your work and then improve and pivot based on your trial-and-error findings. You have to embrace the suck. Embrace the mistakes, acknowledge them and OWN them. My first films I made for a very long time were underwhelming and incoherent, but you learn from them. You learn where you can improve and not to blame talent or crew for your oversights or lack of experience.
Every great filmmaker has learned to enjoy the journey of growth no matter what stage of career. If you’re looking at your current film projects as a means to an end, then you’ll begin to despise the very work that will shape you into a great storyteller.”
On what’s next:
Kwesi: “At the moment, I’m primarily working on learning and articulating my thoughts on race in writing. As I am entering a P.h.D. in Philosophy, I am working to think about race as a philosophical issue and publishing my thoughts on it. I am also working on a book of poetry on race but will need to find a publisher first.”
Mark: “I’m currently directing a CNN documentary that will air on TV this summer as well as developing a couple new documentaries.”