You wouldn’t know it by simply talking with him on the phone, but Tom Laffay, director of the locally produced documentary America Street, is a mere 23 years old. He graduated from College of Charleston last May with a degree in Latin American studies and has recently returned to his parent’s house in Ohio from a half-year stint in Nicaragua. Laffay has been working on a number of other projects for the past eight months or so, ever since his group, Tierra Unida Films, unfortunately failed to reach their Kickstarter fundraising goal of $5,000 to continue the documentary project that, on the surface, was about the issue of food insecurity in the City of Charleston. But it’s also really about so much more — class, race, tradition, and, maybe most interestingly, the idea of activist filmmaking.
Activist filmmaking, for lack of a more concrete definition, is documentary filmmaking that involves the folks behind the camera doing more than simply letting it roll. Laffay and other filmmakers like him hope to cultivate change not only through their finished product, but through the whole affair of creating it as well. “The only reason that I call [America Street] an activist documentary is to highlight the word ‘act,'” Laffay explains. “Not only could the film bring change, but hopefully the filmmaking process itself would enact some positive change as well.”
For the making of the 17-minute short, which is nicknamed “the People’s Short,” Laffay and his counterparts were insistent that they not be the only ones prompting the direction of the film. “If you want [a film] to come from the people, you have to let their voice drive it,” Laffay says. “I had no interest in telling the story from my point of view. Most documentary filmmakers are like me: young, white men from North America and Europe.”
Tanya Garcia, lead photographer for the short and an old friend of Laffay’s, agrees that a single point of view in these instances is insufficient. “Only by working with communities to gain feedback and perspective can [filmmaking] achieve activism,” she says. “Tierra Unida’s hope was to encourage dialogue within the community.” So, instead of creating a film that simply documented the struggles of food insecure households in Charleston, the people fighting against it, or even Laffay’s own relationship with it, the director instead provided an outlet for people he felt deserved to be heard and may otherwise never have been. “We asked them, ‘If you could talk about these issues, what would you want to talk about?”
And these issues, Laffay admits, are monsters. He speaks at length about his beliefs in the importance of agriculture and bio and ethnic diversity, and his admitted frustration with food access problems, gentrification, exploitation, apathy, and a host of other issues that should only make someone like him feel rather small and overwhelmed. But none of the implications of these broader global problems really hit Laffay personally until he encountered a young boy while volunteering at a local garden sponsored by the Green Heart Project on the corner of Mary and America streets. The young boy earnestly raised his hand to ask Laffay if they could please grow chicken wings. “It made me realize that there is an absolute disconnect between people and their food, and that was a shame to me,” Laffay says.
But what he and his partners soon realized, though, is that the issue was much larger than food. Garcia notes that food insecurity is only one part of the bigger picture. “It’s a symptom of many underlying social issues and injustices that are taking place within a society that relies so heavily on the consumer,” she says. “We hope that [people] can realize that they’re all connected.”
The local figures that Laffay enlisted to speak in the short certainly illustrate the fact that these problems are coming at the community from all sides, from health issues to civil rights to years-old economic problems stemming from the closing of the naval base in 1996. And for a young, relative outsider, his list of interviewees is impressive. America Street is decidedly light on actual story and relies heavily on the wisdom of the five featured personalities from the black community in Charleston: Bill Saunders, who was and is an important player in the Civil Rights Movement; Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation; Joseph Fields, a generational farmer from Johns Island; Thom Williams, former pharmacist and owner of Books, Herbs, & Spices; and Jeramin Husser, the director of the Lowcountry Food Bank at the time of the film. Of course, each individual’s commentary stems from their particular background and experience with the underlying causes of food insecurity, with Saunders touching upon race and generational gaps, Queen Quet speaking of heritage and culture, and Williams mentioning health issues that plague the community.
The making of America Street isn’t over. Although Laffay has moved on to other projects (he’s planning on going back to Nicaragua in a few weeks), he admits that not raising their fundraising goal to distribute and continue the film was possibly a sign to, for the moment, move on. “I just kind of hit a brick wall, to be honest. I didn’t know where to take it from there,” he says. “You always wish that there were more people that had as much fire as you. That can be really difficult.”
For Laffay, the pinnacle of the whole project was a screening of the film at the Eastside Community Center on America Street last spring. Twenty people showed up for the event, which included food made from the garden on Mary and America — 10 from the neighborhood and the rest from elsewhere — and they had a neighborhood discussion on race, urban agriculture, and all the other issues touched upon in the film. “That was true democracy to me,” Laffay says. “It’s better this way then going to a film festival where people watch the short and drink wine and slap each other on the back like assholes, then forget about it.”
Laffay won’t be in town for the screening of America Street this week at Park Circle Films in North Charleston, but the event will hopefully enact the same kind of discussion like it did that one day at the Eastside Community Center.
“I’m content with what we did,” Laffay says, in regards to making the film. “But I do understand that no one person is going to change everything. It’s going to take people standing up to turn things around. A solider in a war only fights in one or two battles. You find a battle to fight and you fight it. And hopefully you don’t get killed doing it.”