Kate Davis and David Heilbroner On How Sandra Bland Became The Best Narrator For Their Documentary
When Sheila Nevins approached Kate Davis and David Heilbroner about the viral video of Sandra Bland asking if there was a film there, the filmmakers immediately saw the story to tell. What they didn’t realize was that Bland would end up being the best narrator for the documentary.
After her death, millions of people who saw Bland’s video of her arrest wanted to know what really happened to her. (Bland was found hanging in her cell three days after her arrest). Davis and Heilbroner were at work, talking to lawmakers and tracking the story. Bland meanwhile, had left over 30 hours of videos in “Sandy Speaks” talking about political justice and criminal justice, and so, in the HBO documentary film, the filmmakers explore what really happened to Sandra Bland and anchor it with Bland’s videos. Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland is streaming on HBO.
What made you want to tell Sandra’s story?
Kate: When the news broke and went viral, the video was viral. It begged many questions. On the other hand, there was strong evidence that Sandy was brought down very quickly by a cop who wanted to pick a fight. Also, she was found dead in her cell three days later, for David and I, it resonated like lynching in the south. There was an eerie metaphoric quality and we were curious about what happened and what can we learn from this?
David: We then discovered that Sandra left a long library of blogs. She was discussing racism and criminal justice and the very issues that brought her down. There was an eerie sense that she was speaking from beyond the grave. It gave us the tools we thought could make a vivid portrait of her, even though she was gone by the time we started filming.
Kate: Her death came on the heels of many well-known stories of men who had died at the hands of police. There had yet to be a story of a woman who had died at the hands of police, and yet, females do die, but their tales are lesser known. We also thought that was important.
You started so soon and started when it was so fresh after the story broke. Talk about your approach to that aspect?
David: Sheila Nevins contacted us a week after the story had gone viral and wanted to know if there was a film there. Whether the family could ultimately prove that Sandy was the victim of a cold-blooded murder or that she had been beaten up by the police and kept in solitary confinement to the point where she took her own life. She was brought down by the system, and we knew, one way or the other that Sandy should not have been there.
What the family would learn along the way was going to be the journey. We had no idea what the journey would look like, but we knew it would be a powerful one anyway. That’s how it got started, and that’s what made it feel like a film we could tell in real-time starting right after.
Kate: It was really up to the family and to the lead attorney, Cannon Lambert. We went out to Chicago, and we met with them. They’d been inundated with requests. I think part of the reason that they chose to work with us is that we said we’d be there for the long run and however long the case took to unfold. Also, David and I have a history of making civil rights documentaries, and they sometimes take years to make.
In terms with Sandra Bland, you’re dealing with her family, the lawyers and law enforcement. How does the story start coming together when you have those different viewpoints, which I thought was such a great thing to have.
David: I’m glad having multiple viewpoints worked for you. It was really important for us not to make the one-sided polemic. We’re in such a polarized age politically. I think as journalists – which I consider us to be as well as filmmakers, it’s really important that we can show the film to be objective and fair and give all sides of the stories, a clear airing.
Right after Sandy died, the law enforcement was immediately branded murderers. They were receiving death threats and had to wear bulletproof vests. To make a film that only told Sandy’s story and that side of things would be to lose sight – law enforcement was not to be entirely demonized. And Sandra herself, in her messages kept saying, “Black people need to listen to white people and white people need to listen to black people.” She set the bar for us./
Kate: In one of her blogs, she talks about educating the police. She said, if you see something wrong going on in the street, she was about dialogue and creating a two-way conversation around real problems in the world.
Yes, she was.
Kate: It wasn’t easy. It was a bit of a challenge to integrate both points of view. Law enforcement had a case going still and so we didn’t want to follow the case up as filmmakers, we just had to follow along quietly and let things unfold. In the end, they felt it was important for their side to be told, and David was a former prosecutor who could speak their language.
David: On a structural challenge, it’s a complicated braid because there are multiple points of view. So, we had to braid all these different compelling viewpoints and make it feel like a single compelling narrative with a portrait of a woman interwoven.
The editing was superb because through that you hit the emotions hard. What was that like for you as filmmakers making a story like this?
David: It was a very delicate and emotionally fraught process. The family had just lost a daughter. The circumstances were highly suspicious and upsetting under the best of interpretations. They were not getting answers from law enforcement. In come this film team asking if we can follow the process. Remember, they haven’t had the chance to grieve. We’re talking two weeks after Sandra’s death. We had to respect the pain they were going through and at the same time, observe things that weren’t always happy.
There’s one scene where the family hires a medical examiner and receive the results of her examination and the results are not what they want to hear.
We filmed this and I remember watching the family weeping and no one said to turn the camera off. But, for someone behind the camera, you’re watching and you are feeling their pain. These are people you get to feel very close with. At times, it was emotionally exhausting.
Kate: At times, they wanted their privacy. We worked with them and over time there was a friendship and trust that made it possible.
David: We are indeed friends with them.
When did they finally see it in full?
Kate: They had their own reactions. I think it was upsetting for them to see some of the forensic details that they had not seen before. What was gratifying was that they felt that Sandy had been brought to a point where it was true to her. One of her sister’s said, “I felt like I was sitting with Sandy” and that meant a lot.
Going back to the editing, I really loved the striking opening and the way you ended it too.
David: What makes Sandra’s life and story different is that she left these incredibly moving and articulate, funny and witty series of videos. Once we started to dig into that, we realized it would become such a major part of the film. So many victims of police misconduct, don’t leave that legacy behind, and we wanted that to be front and center. When you have a star, you want to let them shine and that’s why opening the film with her felt like the right thing to do.
Kate: It was almost like she was a narrator. It ends on that upbeat note encouraging people to get out there and to do something good. That’s so much her message. You could interpret her whole case and loss of life as something playing out of her desires to change the world. She has reached millions, and she is the poster child for women victims of police brutality and she continues to be so. She is the strongest case of all minorities. It felt fitting to have her spirit in terms of not giving up. She was the Joan of Arc or Rosa Parks who refused to sit at the back of the bus, but that meant that she left herself very vulnerable to abuse by a male-power system.