In her interview with IndieWire, director Nancy Buirski discussed her beginnings in the world of film as the founder of North Carolina’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. What has surprised her most over the years is that among the hundreds of documentaries she’s seen at her festival, very few have been willing to take risks. “It’s hard to have faith in one’s creative expression the first time out of the gate,” she conceded, “but for me, falling back on a template deadens even the most beautiful story.” Buirski’s own work is experimental but understated. Her arrangements of rare footage, old photographs, and intimate interviews have reaffirmed the subjective power of the documentary, revealing the extent to which history and its retelling ultimately hinge on the personal.
Buirski’s first documentary, The Loving Story (2011), was about the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision (1967), which unanimously declared anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional. The case was brought on behalf of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple in Virginia imprisoned by local officers in 1959 for violating the state’s ban on interracial marriage. Buirski recalls that out of the many civil rights era documentaries she’d watched over the years, not a single one had closely examined the Lovings’ landmark struggle for marriage equality. This oversight was her main motivation for making the film.
The first people that Buirski approached for the project were the Lovings’ lawyers, Phil Hirschkop and Bernie Cohen. They referred her to documentary filmmaker Hope Ryden, who had come to Virginia in the ‘60s to interview the Lovings after hearing about their case. When Buirski contacted her, Ryden showed her the home videos of the Lovings she’d taken over forty years ago, still in miraculously preserved condition. Together with Grey Villet’s photos of the couple, Ryden’s footage lends an intimacy to The Loving Story that is rare within the documentary genre. As Buirski observed, “The Lovings don’t look like two people caught up in a cause. They seem like two people caught up in each other.” Similar to Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, it was the simple power of the couple’s love that impacted history and retains its resonance today. Buirski’s documentary possesses a universal message about love defying society’s hateful restrictions and was heralded, upon its release, as a timely symbol amidst the threats to gay marriage posed by Proposition 8.
The Loving Story would serve as the template for Jeff Nichol’s subsequent feature film, Loving (2016), produced by Buirski and starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. Buirski was also the creative force behind this project, explaining that when she’d been working on the documentary several years before “she felt very strongly that it should be a narrative film as well.” Given the extensive time she’d spent working with footage of the Lovings, her hopes might have been easily deflated by a fictional recreation of this story; but the actors lived up to her vision, and she praised the way Negga and Edgerton “channeled the spirit and gentleness of this couple.”
Personal relationships were also at the core of her next documentary, Afternoon of a Faun (2013), a tribute to American ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq. Le Clercq was the star of the New York City Ballet in the ’40s and ’50s, whose rise to fame was cut short when she was stricken with polio at the age of twenty-seven. As it traces the tragic trajectory of her career, the film furnishes innermost glimpses of her artist-muse relationships with choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, creating a kind of film diary nested within its larger documentary context. Interspersed with voiceovers of her correspondence with Robbins, live footage of Le Clercq’s performances takes on an arrestingly private aura, casting the dancer’s graceful movements as an extension of her inner spirit and resilience. With an ethereal style that parallels its subject, Afternoon of a Faun is considered by critics to be Buirski’s most aesthetically accomplished work.
Praise was less abundant (though far from absent) for her subsequent homage to Sidney Lumet, commissioned by the PBS doc series “American Masters.” When Buirski came onto the show, her first assignment was to take a 14-hour interview that the late Daniel Anker had done with Lumet in 2008 and to craft a documentary out of it. As with her previous films, she insisted that the tone remain personal: “I wanted the idea that I could have Sidney Lumet tell his story and let him guide us through his life and his work and his world.” The film, By Sidney Lumet (2015), centers specifically on a shocking wartime incident early in the director’s life when he was stationed overseas in Calcutta and saw a group of GIs gang rape a twelve-year-old Indian girl in a train car. The connections Buirski draws between this trauma and Lumet’s impulse as a socially conscious filmmaker again encourage us to see the documentary’s subject from a profoundly personal angle—to consider how his prolific work might have sprung, on some level, from his memory of this unconscionable act that he witnessed and failed to prevent.
Sexual violence is the unflinching subject of Buirski’s most recent documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017), in which she reprises her earlier focus on the history of race relations in America. It recounts the horrific yet largely unknown gang rape of a young black woman in Abbeville, Alabama by six white teenagers who abducted her on her way home from church on September 3, 1944. Recy Taylor’s case, taken up by Rosa Parks, became a significant galvanizing force behind the growing civil rights movement. Not a single one of her attackers, however, was ever put on trial, and records of the case have been erased from Abbeville’s libraries and courthouses (The Root). Hence why scholar Danielle McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, was crucial to helping reconstruct this story on screen. “If it weren’t for the book,” insisted Taylor’s brother Robert Corbitt, “the movie wouldn’t have happened.”
By alternating the present-day testimonies of Taylor’s family with old footage of Abbeville and excerpts from early 20th-century race films, The Rape of Recy Taylor haunts viewers with this all but forgotten crime. Functioning as both “artifact and indictment” (IndieWire), it is a bold and necessary antidote to collective oblivion and a reminder of the racial progress that has still not been made. Its hard-hitting impact recalls director Raymundo Gleyzer’s description of documentary film as “the bullet that breaks the silence and ignites consciousness.”