Marc Silver's timely film 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets focuses on the death of African-American teenager Jordan Davis, killed by a white man who invoked Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.
America is facing mounting pressure to reckon with its ingrained racism, but it's come at the cost of many African-American lives: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, the Charleston nine and Walter Scott, among many others.
Among those many others is Jordan Davis, whose death is the subject of Marc Silver's new documentary 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, which opens in LA and other cities on Friday.
Davis was just 17 in November 2012 when he and a group of friends pulled into a Jacksonville, Florida gas station to buy gum and cigarettes. A middle-aged white patron, Michael Dunn, objected to loud rap music coming from their vehicle. An argument ensued and Dunn fired 10 shots at the young men, killing Davis almost instantly.
In this moment there was the issue of racial profiling, access to guns and laws that give you the confidence to use those guns.
Silver, a London native whose previous credits include Who Is Dyani Crystal?, came on board before Dunn's murder trial started, and his cameras served as pool for media covering the case.
Nonfictionfilm.com talked with Silver in Beverly Hills about his documentary and what it says about the country's unresolved issues with race.
Nonfictionfilm.com: The film couldn't be more timely with what has been happening in this country.
Marc Silver: When we began it was around the time of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin verdict. When we were in edit Ferguson happened and all of these other subsequent events and shootings occurred. We realized that the DNA of what was going on in those three and a half minutes was the same DNA that was occurring in occurring in all these other events.
I was interested in the idea that in this moment... when those two cars pulled up next to each other, there was the issue of racial profiling, access to guns and the laws that give you the confidence to use those guns.
Dunn left the scene with his fiancée Rhonda Rouer, who had been inside the gas station convenience store when the shooting took place. When police later tracked down Dunn he invoked the state's "Stand Your Ground" law, claiming he thought his life had been in danger.
NFF: Is it helpful to approach this subject matter as someone born outside the US?
MS: I think yes and no. The "yes" part of me thinks that perhaps I had more of a bird's eye view of maybe more systemic links between things. The "no" side of me thinks there are issues in the film that are universal when it comes to justice and equality and race. And I think wherever you're from and wherever you're making a film about those issues it doesn't matter what your nationality is.
NFF: Tell me about the kind of access you were able to get for the film-- both inside and outside the courtroom.
MS: We needed permission and access to Jordan’s family and friends and I think in many ways you learn who Jordan was in his absence through his friends and family. And then there was access to the courtroom itself, which took several months [to arrange] and actually ultimately was the judge’s decision, whether he would let me be there with a camera. And there was, if you like, the Michael Dunn side of the story -- the shooter’s side of the story.
NFF: He declined to be interviewed for the film, but you found a way to reveal his true thoughts.
MS: Through these phone calls that he had made from jail mainly to his now ex-fiancée, Rhonda Rouer. In those phone calls you really get to understand how hard done by Michael Dunn perceives himself to be, how he really believes that he did nothing wrong and in fact he potentially saved other people’s lives by shooting Jordan. But more than that I think Michael Dunn through those phone calls comes to represent something, through his kind of naïveté and ignorance as to his own racism. I think it almost acts as a metaphor for certain parts of America that aren’t willing to talk about their own racism or at least willing to talk about racism.
NFF: At one point we hear Dunn say in one of his phone calls, in reference to Jordan and his companions in the car, "This subculture does not have the right to assert itself." He's talking about them playing rap music. Unintentionally, it's so revealing.
MS: There's a line after that where he says as well, "And where are the fathers?" implying that all black fathers are absent. I couldn't believe the irony that he [Dunn] actually hadn't spoken to his son for about 12 years before the week [of the shooting] where he happened to be kind of reconciling with his son and going to his son's wedding. And I just couldn’t believe that he hadn’t made that connection. He was very happy in his fantasy kind of way to accuse black fathers of not being present and yet at the same time not acknowledge that he wasn’t even present for the last 12 years for his own son. And then obviously the irony that Jordan’s dad was ever-present [in his son's life].
NFF: I think 98-percent of filmmakers would have packed the film with still pictures of Jordan Davis. You save those for the very end. Tell me why you decided to do that.
MS: There were two reasons. One, simply that I felt like it would just be kind of emotionally manipulative if we started sowing all these “good boy” pictures of a smiley Jordan. But more than that... by not seeing him so overtly he almost comes to represent all of these other-- in a kind of iconographic way-- young black men who have been killed who are essentially dehumanized and have their identities taken away from them.
NFF: In a sense the trial came down to what we project onto other people and so by omitting the photographs from the earlier part of the film you've left it a blank screen.
MS: You’re right, and as part of that idea we tried for as long as possible in the film to almost try to put the audience in the seats, in the minds of the jury and just drip feed them information in the same way that the jury received that information. By constructing the film in that way... I think it allowed audiences to have the chance to kind of reflect on their own potential biases in a way that if we had been a bit more finger-waving or a bit more brash about it I think people would have been defensive.
NFF: The jury convicted Dunn of attempted murder for firing at the young men in the car, but it couldn't decide whether Dunn was guilty of murder for killing Davis.
MS: I think the defense lawyer did an incredible job at sowing enough reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury that they were incapable of reaching a verdict and there was a mistrial. I sat there and thought, “Wow, is this what justice really means?”
NFF: Rhonda Rouer, Dunn's then fiancée, gave key testimony at the re-trial admitting Dunn didn't say anything to her immediately after the shooting about the young men being armed. What do you make of her?
MS: There are times when I was editing the film when I have respect for her for ”telling the truth” about what Michael Dunn did or didn’t say in the aftermath of the shooting. And then the more cynical part of me thinks, you know what, she probably gave an interview to the police after that shooting and I would imagine she said things to the police that she couldn’t then lie [about] on the stand.
Ultimately, I feel she didn’t call the police when that event happened. She didn’t try to persuade Michael Dunn to call the police and in that moment-- probably through fear and stress-- she apparently seemed to be more concerned about [being reunited with] her dog and getting home than she did about someone who had just been killed.
NFF: Finally, how does this country move forward? Some would say guns are the problem, racism is the problem, “Stand Your Ground” laws are the problem.
MS: I think all those things are problems individually and when they come together. The type of films I make aren’t about the big politics with a capital “P.” I like to think by seeing parts of yourself reflected in films like this you get to question how you’re personally going to react to things like gun control issues, racism.
For me, it’s about how do you move forward firstly as an individual and understand your responsibility to those issues? If then you are honest enough to reflect on those things then perhaps you’re capable of being part of a movement and part of advocacy groups and political groups that actually can effect change in a more pragmatic, legal way.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.