Dee Rees: “Our history is perpetually being rewritten as we live it”

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© 2017 Sundance Institute | Marie Ketring

In recognition of her singular filmmaking vision, Dee Rees accepted the Sundance Institute Vanguard Award presented by Acura last night to round out the weekend at NEXT FEST. An alumni of the Screenwriters and Directors Labs, Rees made her directorial debut with "Pariah" at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and returned this year with "Mudbound," arriving in theaters later this year. With last week's tragedy in Charlottesville providing yet another glaring reminder of our country's ongoing fight against hate and discrimination, Rees powerfully and poignantly reminded us that we have work to do, and that we're more than capable of it. We’re publishing her remarks in full below:

It’s hard to know where to begin. Each moment is defined by a multitude of histories, the past constantly converging upon us, perpetually decaying and reforming itself on the steady pulse of now, now, now, now. History constantly races toward itself along a multitude of angles to the singular moment, instantly splintering out again into the fractured experience of seven and a half billion personal realities. So tonight, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The personal is the collective—infinite lines of lived experience trending toward but never arriving at the single point that is our consciousness, because our consciousness by definition can never be singular or static as we hurdle ever forward.

It has been almost 90 years since the United Artists Theatre, which we stand next to, first opened. But it’s been only 47 years since the United Artists released pioneering director Ossie Davis’ first film. It has been 75 years since my grandmother’s Louisiana school truncated Blacks’ education at 11th grade so they would not have to give them high school diplomas. But it’s been 47 years since she earned her bachelor’s degree at Tennessee State University anyway. It has been 63 years since the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education. But it’s only been 28 years since I was bussed across town to middle school as part of an integration program in Nashville, Tennessee, in a school system that was still practically segregated. You see, the distance between two narratives is very elastic, sometimes stretching farther apart, sometimes collapsing together in the now, now, now, now.

It has been 204 days since a demagogue took office. And so it has only been 34 hours since white supremacist terrorists raged with virtual impunity through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. It has been 52 years since the Voting Rights Act was passed; it has been 50 months since the Voting Rights Act was undone. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice Roberts proclaimed. “White power,” proclaimed the white neo-Nazi terrorists yesterday.

It has been 107 days since Attorney General Sessions crowed about a mass roundup of MS-13 gang members in Long Island. “We are coming after you,” the attorney general said. 45 arrests have been made. It has been one and a half days since a violent gang of white supremacist terrorists, armed with clubs and brass knuckles, openly brawled in the streets of Virginia. One woman was murdered. Three arrests have been made. There has been no mass roundup. There have been no vows to dismantle the violent Ku Klux Klan gang, and the violent skinhead gang, and the violent Keystone United gang, or any other white supremacist terror organization. No, this is only the natural continuation and re-escalation of our country’s selectively omitted, pathologically violent history.

It has been 13 years since I came out. It has been 432 hours since the demagogue banned transgender citizens from serving in the military. It has been 44 days since the Muslim travel ban took effect, and that the bulk of black and brown immigrants who, solely on the basis of their sheer existence, have effectively been criminalized.

And it has been 191,625 days since the first arrival of European immigrants, whose criminal acts of theft, rape, subjugation, and genocide systematically destroyed and continue to destroy this country and the many nations that lived here first.

So you see, our position in the universe is elastic. It’s hard to know exactly where we are, impossible to measure progress, except in relation to what happened just before.

It has been 14 years since I quit my corporate life and first embarked on my career as a filmmaker. It has been 10 years since I walked through the doors of Sundance Institute, with gratitude to Robert Redford, Michelle Satter, and Rachel Chanoff for affirming that my story mattered and for empowering me to tell it—for creating the place where I could add my own voice to the zeitgeist in the first place, and to join the tradition of other independent artists doing the same.

It has been 8 years since I wrapped production on my first film, Pariah, and it has only been 392 days since I wrapped production on my latest film, Mudbound. Yet the space between them and the space in which they were created alongside a talented and dedicated village of artists feels simultaneous, feels more like an instant.

Mako, you were there. Tamar, you were there. Kim, you were there. Craig, you were there. And Sarah, my love, thank God you are here. And we are all doing our work.

It has been only 5 minutes since I have accepted this Vanguard Award. And it has been 11 days since the attorney general tells us that he will end affirmative action. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice Roberts says. But we can only go by the evidence, and we know what happens next. Telling stories is one way to defend against “next”—no, to record “next”—no, to determine what happens next. I’m grateful to Sundance Institute for celebrating me next because either it’s been 14 years or it’s been 151 years. Either it’s been 52 years or it’s only been 34 hours that we come to this moment. It’s impossible to know where to begin. Our history is perpetually being rewritten as we live it. We won’t know what it is until we look back and chart our slow trajectory followed by the rhythmic unbroken line of now, now, now, now. Our voices are all that we have, now.


Lead photo:

© 2017 Sundance Institute | Marie Ketring