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'Real Life Is More Tragic Than Fiction,' A Filmmaker Documents NYC Protests

"WE ARE GEORGE FLOYD," by Julian Marshall, is a film that captures New York City's protests in the days after George Floyd was killed by a police officer. It tells the story in two parts.

The first half of the film, shot entirely at night, is narrated with excerpts from a CNN interview with Harvard philosophy Professor Cornel West, who describes how, in his words, "We are witnessing America as a failed social experiment." We see fires and shattered windows and protestors under arrest, their hands zip tied together. West continues, "It looks as if the system cannot reform itself."

The second half: daylight breaks and now we're on the ground with protestors and they're organized, moving in unison. Killer Mike's speech at the Atlanta Mayor's press conference serves as the narration, where he asks, "After it burns, will we be left with char, or will we rise like a phoenix out of the ashes?"

If the first half paints a portrait of a country in deep trouble, the second half offers a way forward – first: despair; second: hope. First: desperation; second: opportunity.

NPR spoke to Marshall about his experience making this film.

Why did you decide to make this film?

I started to tune into the protests on Friday (May 29). I didn't sleep a wink Friday night. To be honest, I wanted to protest but was afraid because of coronavirus' virulence in NYC. Saturday morning, I watched Cornel West's interview and Killer Mike's press conference and was immediately struck. It was very clear that I had to create something productive in order to help people channel the collective outrage. Thematically, my focus was on Killer Mike's ultimate message: "Don't burn your own house down." That was the message that I wanted to hammer home. We need NYC in tip-top shape going into the November election in order to beat Trump. So we can't compound the damage done by coronavirus by burning the city to the ground in anger.

What was the process of making it like? What was the most challenging part about making it?

On the 30th, I shot all of the daytime footage first, which went very smoothly. I wore a P100 respirator to protect myself from coronavirus so that I could move in and out of crowds more comfortably. However, everything that I shot at night was a complete surprise. After nightfall, around 9 p.m., I decided to venture back out, instinctively thinking that something unusual was going to happen. To be honest, the chaos found me. I walked out of my apartment and immediately a swarm of 20 cop cars blasted past me up Third Avenue, going toward Union Square, so I chased them. When I arrived at 13th Street and Fourth Avenue it was very clear that this night was going to be unlike anything I had ever seen in my life, outside of a film set.

There was a cop car that had been bombed and was burning into the night sky. The NYPD and FDNY had just arrived on the scene. I had to maneuver my way around cops who were trying to block my shots, but I managed to get clean shots. Then the cruiser's gas tank exploded like a bomb! After I got the shot, I made my way around the block to try to find a different angle—and suddenly, another cop car exploded and went up in flames. I managed to get better shots of this one because the cops were starting to get spread thin between the two sites. But it was pretty sketchy having no clue how these cars were blown up. I feared that someone could have been throwing IEDs in the cop cars and trash cans, so I tried to hide behind parked cars for cover as I shot. Then, just like the first cop car, the second cop car's gas tank exploded!

As if this wasn't enough, I continued down the street and a third cop car went up in flames. I carefully made my way over and shot it while again trying to find some sort of cover for safety, knowing that the third car's tank would probably explode as well.

What has been inspiring you lately?

I've drawn immense inspiration from the continued energy of this movement. One month later, people are still out in the streets protesting. And this is how it needs to be. We cannot allow the powers that hope to maintain the status quo to change the narrative.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

There are only a few projects that I've made where I have been in tears in the edit room. This one hit me like a brick wall. We are living in a moment where real life is more tragic than fiction. Making this film was almost like therapy for me but the larger goal was to help people cope with, process and channel their emotions into something actionable, which in this case is mobilizing to vote. But not just vote for president—to vote at every level. Because this election is not just about Trump. It's about Congress, it's about the Senate, and it's about the soul of our judicial system, the impact of which, to be quite honest, will outlive Trump.

You can find filmmaker Julian Marshall @julianmarshall.

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Annabel Edwards