Full Frame: What's the Use of Looking Back? In the Case of Two Towns of Jasper, It Helps Us Gauge Our Progress from Then to Now. | Arts

Full Frame: What's the Use of Looking Back? In the Case of Two Towns of Jasper, It Helps Us Gauge Our Progress from Then to Now.


  • photo courtesy of Full Frame
  • Two Towns of Jasper
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival:
Two Towns of Jasper
Friday, April 7
Carolina Theatre, Durham

In 1998, an African-American man was murdered by three white men in the seemingly peaceful town of Jasper, Texas. Not long after the incident took place, filmmaker Whitney Dow, intuiting the complexity of the story, asked his colleague Marco Williams to join the project of documenting it. Together they determined that they needed two film crews, one white and one black, which would explore the story from the perspective of the white and black townspeople, respectively.

Two Towns of Jasper, the result of this unconventional approach, was initially shown at Full Frame in 2002; it screened again yesterday as a part of the festival’s twentieth-anniversary retrospective. It’s the sort of film that makes the retrospective format worthwhile by reminding us of the dilemmas faced by both filmmakers and film curators, whether in 1998 or today. After all, what is the ultimate objective of documentaries? Is it to change unfavorable realities or to expose them, to bring some light into the darkness? What good is a movie if it’s destined to be archived and only known by cinephiles?

Fifteen years after Two Towns of Jasper first came to Full Frame, its modern relevance is disturbing. That’s why it never hurts to recall the hard task film festivals undertake as social and historic witnesses of their times, keeping remarkable works like this one alive and making sure they reach the broad audiences they deserve, so that we can all learn from the past and move in a different direction, ensuring we become better versions of ourselves.

Poised between mere observation and self-awareness of its own limitations as, after all, a constructed narrative, the film's non-objective use of two separate crews unveils how deeply split the community is, regardless of both sides' efforts to get along. We might wonder how different this movie would have been if there were only one crew, how many nuances of truth would have been missed. As it is, no answers are provided, leaving it all on us.

Nothing is easy about confronting the sad truth: that this is a portrait not just of the past, but of what our society continues to struggle with. Hopefully, someday soon, we will be able to say, “This time no longer exists,” as one of Jasper's residents states, and movies like this will be around to keep the memory alive, as documents for the service of future generations.

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