A tale of two Americas

Documentary exploring race and policing in U.S. schools to be shown during Woods Hole Film Festival. 

"On These Grounds" is a documentary about race and school policing that will be shown during the Woods Hole Film Festival. — courtesy Ariana Garfinkel

A video of Ben Fields, a white Spring Valley High School resource officer, violently arresting Shakara, a Black student at the school, in Columbia, S.C., went viral in 2015, and sparked nationwide outrage. People and news outlets were divided on where they stood regarding the issue. Soon, international news outlets like the South China Morning Post showed the incident to the world. Seven years later, the documentary “On These Grounds” explores the aftermath of the viral incident. One of the individuals who was part of making the film is producer and seasonal Islander Ariana Garfinkel. The film is scheduled to be shown during the Woods Hole Film Festival, which begins and ends on a Saturday: July 30 to August 6. 

Garfinkel said she was one of the first people that talked about whether the viral video she and so many others had seen could become the topic of a film. She began the project with director Garrett Zevgetis. 

“We had seen the video that went viral when the incident happened in 2015, along with the rest of the world, were horrified to see it. But, I hadn’t heard much more about it,” Garfinkel said. About a year and a half later, she would read an article about Niya Kenny, who stood up in the classroom to film the incident, and was arrested with Shakara under Georgia’s class disruption law. Kenny became the lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s case against this law. “There was an ongoing fight and a conversation continuing about kids being arrested in school, particularly Black girls being targeted. So, we began by talking with Niya.” 

As a producer, Garkinkel’s role was “the early start of talking about what is the story, what could this be, and how we could have an impact with this.” From there, she worked with Zevgetis and the rest of the team “to put all of the pieces together,” such as the financing, gathering a creative team, contacting different people for the film, distribution, and many more aspects of making a film. Garfinkel is a part of “a little bit of everything,” and while there are a lot of logistics involved, it is still a “creative partnership” with the director to “achieve their goal and vision.” Garfinkel said work on the film began in 2017. 

“We’re at that part now where the film gets to reach the world and audiences and festivals, like the Woods Hole Film Festival,” Garfinkel said. “I spearhead a lot of that, making sure that it’s seen, and that we’re having the conversations we’re meant to have with the film, which are about what’s happening in each of our communities, and how can we do better for kids.” 

When deciding whom to add to the documentary, such as local experts and people who were a part of the incident, Garfinkel, the other producers, Chico Colvard and Jeff Consiglio, and Zevgetis cooperated to make the selections. For example, Robin DiAngelo, an author who focuses on race and “whiteness,” was invited,since Colvard had a prior connection with her alongside her expertise. Other experts, such as University of South Carolina History Professor Bobby Ronaldson and Vivian Anderson, a Brooklyn activist who moved to South Carolina to help the girls from the incident, and a central character of the documentary, were introduced to the film crew by Kenny. Garfinkel said while the “heart of the film” is following the people who were directly affected by the incident and their personal journeys, the experts were called in to add historical and geographical context to these journeys, since “there are deep deep roots in our country of racism and trauma that goes way back.” Garfinkel said this cinematic combination of “facts and figures” and the human story helps to “draw those throughlines from the past to the present,” alongside adding to the story many people saw on the news. 

“Each piece kind of came together in a very organic way,” Garfinkel said. “There’s a lot of just talking and getting to know each other, building up trust, explaining to participants what you’re trying to achieve with the film, why you want to tell this story, and what their role would be.” 

Despite not being actively showcased by the news, Anderson worked quietly to support the girls after the incident went viral. Garfinkel described Anderson as someone “who brought so much love” and made a change. 

“We didn’t know here. She wasn’t part of the story when it was a national news story, but she was always there behind the scenes, working with the girls,” Garfinkel said. “She basically packed up and moved down there right after the video came out, being a support and building this grassroots movement.”

The grassroots movement was Every Black Girl, which is a “national campaign and program focused [on] creating a world where #EBG can thrive” according to the organization’s Facebook page. 

“On These Grounds” shows a divided America, a tale of two different lives. While the documentary is available for people to watch on streaming sites, such as Starz, Garfinkel hopes people will be able to see the film during the festival. 

“It really is a film people should watch together and have a conversation [about]. It’s a conversation-starter. That was our hope,” Garfinkel said. “It’s not just entertainment, it’s not that type of film. It’s about, ‘How can we do better?’ and people need to talk to each other about it and work through [it].”

Having a conversation and being willing to listen was a part of the film’s message as well, particularly with the regular talks Anderson and Fields had about race, school policing, and related issues. Not everybody is always receptive to such difficult topics, including Fields.

“I don’t want to speak for anybody and their own decisionmaking, but one of the things that came through with Officer Fields, Ben Fields in the film is … we really felt that Ben Fields missed an opportunity to take some responsibility, take some accountability, to try to heal the harm that was caused that day,” Garfinkel said. 

Garfinkel also said while the film crew “stands with Niya and Shakara 100 percent,” it was important to look at “the culture that put Ben Fields in that classroom in the first place.” 

While making the film was not always easy, for example, the school staff in the classroom incident (math teacher Robert Long and assistant principal Karon Webb) not being willing to participate in the film, being a part of producing “On These Grounds” was “an honor” for Garfinkel.

“It’s emotional. We’ve heard so many people watching the film and feeling all different kinds of responses: angry, sad, inspired, fired up, and just very touched by the personal stories and journeys that they were able to see onscreen,” Garfinkel said. “That’s a gift, as a producer, to be able to be a conduit for powerful stories to reach people and touch them in that way.” 

The in-person showing of “On These Grounds” will take place at Falmouth Academy’s Simon Center on Tuesday, August 2. Virtual showings of the documentary will be available during the duration of the film festival at 8 am. Tickets and more information are available at bit.ly/3z8HMTs