RiverRun honoree talks about crowdfunding support for theatrical launch of The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution.

Stanley Nelson, the New York-based documentary filmmaker whose credits include The Murder of Emmett Till, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, Wounded Knee, Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer and this year’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, knows that telling such pivotal stories from American history has a special responsibility.

“I feel a burden all the time…I smile through it, but it’s a huge burden…I’m trying to really tell the story as accurately and as entertainingly and as emotionally as I can. But not be pressed down by the weight of the story. That’s part of what the African American experience is about, carrying this burden effortlessly,” Nelson said, speaking at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The New York-based, award-winning filmmaker is one of the founders of Firelight Media, a production company that also runs an influential lab for producers of colour.

Nelson spoke of growing up without seeing black faces in the media, and said, “I wanted to get into filmmaking to tell stories of people I knew.”

He said when he started at film school at City College of New York, “I didn’t know documentary films. Documentaries were somebody droning on with an English accent.” He got his start working on a government-sponsored apprenticeship with the pioneering documentary filmmaker William Greaves.

Several of Nelson’s works like Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer address important moments in America’s Civil Rights movement. “These people risked their lives…these people changed the country. They were young people,” he said in the RiverRun masterclass.

He spoke about the importance of interviewing not just a movement’s leaders, but the “rank and file” as well. “I’m dealing with people who have not had a chance to tell their story,” he said. “I’ll ask people one question and just let them go. Then you have to just say ‘stop.’ Sometimes it’s a matter of controlling the situation.”

His editing background comes in handy during interviews. “I’m editing in my head as somebody’s talking…I’m teaching now and I tell my students, ‘When you ask somebody a question, you’ve got to know the perfect answer.’ If that answer is not something I can use, I shouldn’t be asking that question.”

His research process varies from project to project. For the new documentary about the Black Panthers, there was no seminal book that provided all the information, so there was material drawn from many sources. But he warned the young filmmakers in the crowd, “You don’t need to know everything, you’ll know too much. You can drive yourself crazy.”

He also warned about trying to please too many people. “You want your subject to like your film, but I also had to not care one way or another. It’s important for young filmmakers to understand you can get too close to your subjects and then them to like it too much. The film has to be honest.”

RiverRun bestowed Nelson with its Master of Cinema award and is also screening The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

The Black Panthers will also be released theatrically starting September 2 in at least 13 cities across the US, thanks in part to PBS backing as well as a Kickstarter campaign (that fundraising is still running here to meet a $50,000 target).

He said crowdfunding is “very helpful, not just for donations but it gets the word out there. I was so emotional to see the people who have supported us.”

He closed by saying, “Part of the lesson of this film, of Freedom Riders, of Freedom Summer, is that we have power and we’ve got to use it.”