The closing film of the Open City Documentary Festival is a meditation on the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, namely the story of John Brown, a white activist who was condemned to death because he dared to oppose slavery, and tried to start an armed revolution to overthrow it.
Director Lee Anne Schmitt, married to a black man, dedicates Purge this Land to her son, who will inevitably encounter racism and prejudice in his future life. While the voice over tells us most of John Brown’s story, we are shown present-day America – the places where it all happened more than a hundred years ago, and where the physical marks of racism are still visible. Abandoned buildings, ironic graffiti, all punctuated by the jazzy, earthy music of Jeff Parker, Purge this Land plays in a dreamy state while we are fed empty landscapes, black screen, intimate family moments, quotes and the very occasional archive photo.
For those who don’t know much about John Brown, this may not be the ideal place to start. Schmitt’s abstains from going the educational route, preferring to point out how present the past still is in the United States. The causal way she intertwines her stories of casual racism (against her kids and partner) with historical facts, how her voice sounds detached but the things she is saying are mind-piercing, all this causes Purge this Land to raise a level above more recent documentaries about the subject, like I Am Not Your Negro. Faults there are – the use of artificial film scratches and flares seems gratuitous and unnecessary, and at points one wonders if it the documentary wouldn’t work as well – if not better – as an audio file, as the images sometimes wander too much through unrelated, underwhelming scenarios (at least for the non-locals).
Still, in times like the present, Purge this Land raises topics that should be remembered and meditated upon, particularly when History seems to be seen by some as nonsense forgettable fiction. As we are shown the images of her baby on the arms of her partner, and we are made to dread – like Schmitt – about the future of that baby, maybe it’s time to take to heart that things can and should be changed. Even if that means – or maybe particularly if that means – to go against the establishment, like John Brown did.
Purge this Land will be closing the Open City Documentary Festival today, 10th September 2017. For more information and tickets please check http://opencitylondon.com