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An Unlikely Friendship

A new documentary by Chapel Hill filmmaker Diane Bloom gives Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis an opportunity to tell their own story


You could say a squirrel taught Diane Bloom about prejudice."I'm in awe of squirrels," the filmmaker confides from the safety of her screened-in porch deep in the woods of a Chapel Hill cul-de-sac. "But it wasn't always that way," she adds. Peering out into the trees buzzing with wildlife, she seems to be on the lookout for them.

Once, Bloom would have done anything to keep the squirrels out of her birdfeeders. When they robbed the birds of food, she took it personally.

Then, in 1995, as a health and policy administration student at UNC-Chapel Hill, Bloom shot--and then edited five years later--a 17-minute short film set to the Star Wars theme, featuring interviews with humans about their tactics against squirrels and squirrels talking about humans (in translated subtitles, naturally). After watching hours of footage of their relentless and courageous antics all in the name of seeds, Bloom found her hatred of the wily creatures had been nibbled away.

In a fortuitous turn of events at that film's debut in her Chapel Hill home, a book fell into her lap that relates a more serious kind of prejudice.

Stephen Hawthorne, godfather to the grandchildren of Durham civil rights agitator Ann Atwater, apparently appreciated Bloom's documentary style and her empathy for the little rodents. So he gave her Osha Gray Davidson's The Best of Enemies, which tells the story of a friendship that developed in 1970 between two people who began as bitter enemies--black activist Atwater and white Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, C.P Ellis. Hawthorne suggested she make them the subject of her next project.

Bloom liked the idea on many levels. For starters, it spoke to her passion for the human story, and to her sense of social justice. Just a few months later she found herself working on the documentary.

It's a now familiar story, documented not only in Davidson's 1996 book, but also in Studs Terkel's Race, published in 1992. But Bloom felt a documentary film would reach a wider audience. She also wanted Atwater and Ellis to be able to tell their story in their own words, and to give viewers "a glimpse of their colorful personalities, since they relate their past in an amazingly compelling and passionate way."

In 1970, the middle- and upper-class leaders of Durham's black and white communities were losing control of the racial issues plaguing the city, which was known nationally--and perhaps erroneously--as a model of race relations. Ellis and Atwater had been leading Durham's poor and disenfranchised citizens in some civil and some not-so-civil protests. In Bloom's documentary, the two, in separate interviews, recall their feelings the first time they met, at a Durham City Council meeting.

"Blacks are taking over the city. They got the good jobs--and you're all sittin' here letting 'em do it," Ellis recalls shouting at the council, in a quote that summed up his resentment.

"That's when I wanted to cut his head off," says Atwater, who remembers brandishing a pocketknife and charging through the crowd toward Ellis, the president of the local KKK chapter. A couple of friends held her back.

"That's what they want you to do," they told her, and Atwater grudgingly put away the knife.

Atwater resented the slums to which poor blacks were relegated, and she wanted the city to uphold its housing codes in Hayti, where landlords were not compelled to follow safe housing codes. She frequently led protests against segregation in serving and hiring practices. Meanwhile, Ellis felt that the city's African Americans were draining resources that would otherwise go to more deserving whites. In her book, Davidson asserts that the citizens in positions of authority in business and politics were pitting the two groups against each other. By keeping them bickering, the focus was off the city, and officials could avoid taking action to improve conditions.

But it was school desegregation and its concomitant racial tension that brought the groups face to face in a "charrette," a form of organized community discussion popular in the 1970s. The federal government had granted the AFL-CIO funds for the project, and Bill Riddick, a social worker by training, was hired to organize the 10-day event.

Riddick wanted co-chairs who represented the poor community, whose children suffered the worst school conditions. The middle-class black community, led by C.C. Spaulding, was comfortable and not advocating change. Not without considerable effort, Riddick convinced Ellis and Atwater to co-chair this meeting.

In Race, Terkel set the story in the larger context of a social movement. In The Best of Enemies, Davidson told it as part of the story of Durham. But Bloom's documentary, An Unlikely Friendship, tells a simple story about a white man and a black woman, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, finding common ground.

"I've always loved people and their stories," Bloom says, adding that she's only recently stopped speaking exclusively in questions. She has turned this natural curiosity into a business, working as a quantitative analyst for her own company, In-Focus, which convenes focus groups around the country, conducts in-depth interviews--and now also makes documentaries.

As a younger woman, Bloom wanted to study and make documentaries, until a professor told her that with a documentary film degree she'd find herself selling shoes for a living. So she changed her field of study to psychology. While interning at the Environmental Protection Agency, she was asked to make an educational video. Mr. Rogers Explains the Clean Air Act was one result. Her renewed fire for the medium was another.

After Mr. Rogers came Squirrel Wars, and then in 2000, The Center for Public Service at UNC-CH awarded Bloom $5,000 for the project on Atwater and Ellis, and the N.C. History Museum and Operation Breakthrough partnered with her. She ultimately footed about $5,000 of the bill with her own money, and many talented people donated their time, including Florence Soltys as an interviewer, Jim Sander as an archival researcher and post production assistant, and Lou Lipsitz as narrator. Stephen Hawthorne co-produced and Davis Stillson and David Kasper edited.

The result is a film that answers many questions about the history of race relations in Durham, about how people learn to hate each other, and also about how they learn to love one another. Ellis and Atwater explain in the film that they wanted each other dead. But, when forced together to talk about the schools, they realized that regardless of color, their children were suffering equally in appalling school conditions.

"We went through some trying times" at the charrette, Ellis tells Soltys in the film. But, he says, "We had something in common and it began to work on us."

"We were caught in this web together, but before that we couldn't see that," Atwater adds.

The pair ultimately recognized that though they lived on opposite sides of the tracks, they shared the same problem: poverty. "We began to talk about what was on our heart," Ellis says. "And both of us wept. ... It was because the kids were suffering."

On the last night of the 10-day meeting, Ellis took out his Klan card. As Riddick recalls in the film, Ellis told the crowd of approximately 1,000, "If schools are going to be better with me tearing this card up, I will do so." After the charrette, Ellis became a union organizer and Atwater continued her activism at the Durham Housing Authority. And their friendship surprisingly endured.

"We've made it through these years, together 30 years--and we're still friends," Atwater says, beaming at the camera. "A lot of people still ... don't understand how this happened, but it did happen and we bonded and we're still bonded."

"Every time I go down there I have to hug her neck," Ellis says.

"How in the hell does people get so screwed up mentally?" Ellis asks in the film. He then answers his own question: "They don't have any evidence for some of the things they do--and some of the opinions they make. They just have 'em."

In his interview with Terkel, Ellis explains that people join extremist groups because they feel shut out. "Deep down inside, we want to be part of this great society," he says. "Nobody listens, so we join these groups."

Overall, the two appear more wholesome in Bloom's documentary than in Davidson's book. The documentary does not relate the stories of Atwater's Molotov cocktails and her foiling police surveillance of black activists. The story of Ellis shooting a black youth in the leg (for which he was not convicted) is sanitized. And the specific failures of the city of Durham to uphold state and federal statutes that would help its poor--interesting and moving issues and essentially the events that galvanized these groups--are also neglected.

But the interviews of Atwater, 66, and Ellis, 74, carry the film. Bloom says she is making improvements on the project as she finds time in her schedule--adding archival shots, ironing out some awkward jumps within interview segments. She says she'd like to add more musical background and contextual footage, but doesn't have the money to finance it. And she is working on distribution plans.

Bloom hopes schools will show it so more children will be effected by the lessons of this story--lessons that go well beyond the lives of two people. Riddick says in the film that he learned that "Community people can turn anything in their neighborhood around they want to--[they] just [need] proper leadership and the will to do so."

The film does not discuss how the charrette effected schools. But Atwater, Ellis and Riddick attended the opening night for the film last November at the UNC School of Social Work, and in a Q&A session, the audience posed the question. Atwater lamented that though the fighting and tension eased, the schools are just as poorly supported and ineffective today as they were in 1970.

But that may not be the measure of success of the charrette, or of this film.

With a Ph.D. in human development, Bloom says she has always been skeptical about human ability to change, but this story enlightened her. "It doesn't happen that often that people make profound transitions," she says. The change from hatred to love took on the structure of the meeting and two personalities that were open to new ideas. Her documentary even moved Studs Terkel: Bloom says he called as he watched the end of the film, and he was weeping at how powerful it was. She is negotiating to add an introduction by Terkel and says Chicago Public television will run the documentary in celebration of his 90th birthday this spring.

The filmmaker says her first meeting with Ellis summed up this story with a simple gift. He brought her two links from his deceased wife's bracelet and said he wanted to get started on the right foot. Bloom says the gift symbolized the lesson: This is how communities come together--"One link at a time." EndBlock

An Unlikely Friendship will be shown at the Pittsboro General Store on Sunday, March 17, at 5 p.m., and Tuesday, March 19 at noon in the auditorium of the School of Social Work's Tate Turner Kuralt Building at the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. The general public is invited. Call (919) 542-8149 or 929-8941 for details.

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