Carysbrook presents film The Lives Between the Lines

By Page H. Gifford

The documentary film Lives Between the Lines will be presented at Carysbrook Performing Arts Center on Friday, Oct. 13, at 7 p.m. The showing of the film, awarded 2023 Best Virginia Film at the Richmond International Film Festival, will be followed by a panel discussion with filmmakers. The film is free to the public.

The documentary explores the historical background that led up to the design and implementation of the memorial built to honor the lives and legacies of enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia. Four thousand built and maintained the grounds of UVA from 1817-1865. The memorial sits east of the iconic Rotunda on the UVA grounds and the design was a student-led effort. Built in 2020 and dedicated in 2021, the 80-foot memorial, made of Virginia mist granite, is made up of two broken circles symbolizing the broken shackles and the celebration of emancipation.

The producer and director of the film, Erik Duda, became interested when he learned about the construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers in 2018. After talking to many of those involved in the design and construction process, he says he learned that the student activism began in 2007.

“I was fascinated by the history of the project and the involvement from the community, students, and passionate staff and faculty. It was much bigger than just a memorial and meant a lot to the descendants of the community that began to take root. So, what started as a short video about the construction evolved into a feature documentary,” he said.

One of the students and a descendant who worked on the film was Jessica Harris. The film features a handful of interviews from descendants of the enslaved laborers at UVA, including Harris. She served on the UVA Memorial to Enslaved Laborers Community Engagement Committee. As Erik and his team started creating the documentary, Erik invited her to serve as a consulting producer.

“Given my background as a descendant, as a UVA student who served on the committee, and my experience with the arts, I tried my best to bring these perspectives to the fore throughout the project,” she said.

As a consulting producer, she worked with Erik to provide feedback throughout the creation of the documentary. They worked closely to ensure that the film captured the essential elements of the history, highlighted a variety of voices, and told a cohesive and impactful story.

“Now, my work is centered on ensuring that the documentary can be used as a tool for community connection and education. We’re setting up further screenings and community discussions, and are also working to embed the film in educational curriculum.”

Duda believes the memorial does a lot of this work itself.

“The film highlights the importance of honoring the enslaved laborers and connecting it to the descendants of enslaved laborers, many of whom had no idea they were descendants,” he said. “We told one brutal story of what it was like to be enslaved in this very emotional film. We can only imagine how many more brutal stories weren’t written down in the record books at UVA.”

Duda describes the key points of the film, including history, memory, and the importance of taking up space are huge themes throughout.

“For a community that was overlooked since 1812, there’s a lot of work to do when it comes to reconciling the past and honoring the future. The memorial is a huge step and the film is a catalyst for succinctly telling that story.”

Duda’s approach to the challenging subject of representing a sensitive and complex historical topic was to rely on the consulting producers, like Jessica Harris, and the community engagement committee, which was a large group of staff, faculty, community members, and descendants who were involved in the work for years. He added that h is number one goal with the film was to make sure that the community was satisfied with the final documentary, especially the descendants of the enslaved.

There is a growing community, forming the non-profit The Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA which claims to reclaim, honor, and repair the relationship of their ancestors. They offer tours of the memorial as well which is a really powerful experience, added Duda.

Research and historical accuracy is under scrutiny nowadays and Duda paid close attention to the details.

“Our historical consultant Kirtvon Daacke has been involved in this work since 2013. He led the research project under the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University which sought to unearth the truth of UVA’s past through countless hours of historical research in the UVA archives, he said. “Given this documentary project began in 2019, Kirt had years of experience and understanding of what the truth was.”

The response and impact of this film in terms of raising awareness about the contributions of enslaved individuals to the building of UVA, Duda says has been positive. As part of the 2022 Virginia Film Festival, Duda says there were several screenings and discussions in 2022 and 2023. He hopes to bring this to a wider academic audience and screen it more within the Charlottesville community.

“There are many universities, institutions, and corporations founded on the backs of enslaved people and many of them are doing the necessary research to honor those individuals,” he said. “This film is a great catalyst in telling the story of how one institution approached the process thanks to many student activists and community members. As Kirtvon Daacke has said to me before, “It turns out when you do this work, good things continue to happen.”

So much controversy surrounds history, particularly Black history, nowadays but Duda reminds everyone that the truth is in the historical archives at UVA and we simply tell the stories.

“I’m sure that history is difficult for some people to grapple with, but it’s simply the reality of what was uncovered.

Jessica Harris added, “I hope audiences leave feeling inspired, moved and called to action. The story of the creation of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers highlights the importance of place, community-building, and long-term connection, and how history is the thread that connects us all. This film not only captures this story in an incredibly impactful way but focuses on the people and experiences behind this powerful design. It is on each of us to continue the legacies of those who came before us, and I hope this film reminds us of just that.”

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