By  |  March 13, 2019
Old Maplewood Cemetery, Durham, North Carolina. Photograph by Sarah Riazati. Old Maplewood Cemetery, Durham, North Carolina. Photograph by Sarah Riazati.

A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University 

Duke University’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program welcomed its first class in the fall of 2011; founding units included the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, and the Arts of the Moving Image Program. Here, founding director Tom Rankin describes the MFA’s animating philosophy and introduces the work of a member of the Class of 2019. That graduating class kicks off its multi-venue thesis exhibition, MFA|EDA 2019, on March 18.

One central focus of our Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts is to foster original documentary expression that interrogates memory, history, and identity through the lens of time, place, and narrative. I like to think of our MFA as fueled not only by the shadows of the past, but equally by the here, the now, and the local. By no means a documentary history program, so much of the work and conversation within the Duke MFA|EDA is concerned with arcs of time, with questions of who gets to tell the essential stories and how the past is rendered. We encourage each other to tell the small stories—those often overlooked dark and light sagas—in hopes that the small will resonate at large, that the particularities of place and time will evoke understandings of things universal and necessary.

The coupling of the experimental with the documentary arts was there from the earliest idea of the program, a counter-intuitive premise that a large documentary toolbox is essential to fuel the rage to tell stories in creative and effective ways. Experimentation, of course, is at the root of all creation, crucial to all artistic inquiry. Documentary artists have regularly been among the most influential experimenters, communicating about overlooked histories through new forms coupled with new media, often aspiring to reach new audiences. The abiding themes of documentary—class and place, race and memory, identity and witness, to name a few—are intermixed by the best of our documentary artists.

Sarah Riazati’s forthcoming MFA thesis film, monumental, so beautifully reckons with the dark pasts of Durham and Chapel Hill, looking squarely at contemporary moments while simultaneously revealing the archival testaments of deeper time. Riazati, a journalist, filmmaker, and photographer, delivers no easy piece on our collective struggle with monuments and the telling of history. Far from a reclamation of the past, monumental is a new reading of the evidence, a fresh shape of the telling that doesn’t rest in a simple narrative arc but rather a set of honest questions around what is known, felt, and deserving of deeper consideration. Her film stands not as an answer to the questions of history, but as a compellingly beautiful telling of stories that are laced with unresolved issues and complications, pointing all of us in the directions of deeper responsibility, inquiry, and recognition. 

Tom Rankin, Duke MFA|EDA founding director

Text and monumental trailer and video stills by Sarah Riazati.

monumental is an experimental documentary about toppled statues, Southern history, the legacy of names, the resilience of bricks, the power of poetry, the definition of patriotism, hidden family trees, and segregated cemeteries. There is no static history. It lives on, layered in the landscape, painted on the brick mills. Through investigating the ripples of the words and deeds of local postbellum industrialist Julian Shakespeare Carr, paradoxically called “the most generous white supremacist,” and reenacting scenes from the childhood of Pauli Murray, an unsung civil and women’s rights activist, the film scratches away at surfaces of stories about Durham, North Carolina. Careful scrutiny of such surfaces may reveal effaced answers to the questions that history leaves us with today regarding racial identity and segregation, industrialization and labor, and gentrification and community. As statues topple and new monuments rise, this film invites consideration of where have we been, where we are now, and where we are going.

This trailer features Kennedy Berryman reading an excerpt from Dark Testament by Pauli Murray and excerpts of interviews with Conrad Odell Pearson, Viola Turner and Pauli Murray, held in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The filmmaker would like to thank the people who consented to participate in monumental and the archival rights holders who consented to the representation of those who have passed away. 

 riazati oa 00Old Maplewood Cemetery, Durham, North Carolina. Photograph by Sarah Riazati.

riazati oa 01A view of downtown Durham from nearby Julian Shakespeare Carr’s front door.

riazati oa 02A speculative reconstruction of Carr’s Durham Hosiery Mill No. 2.

riazati oa 03Inside a mill once part of Carr’s chain of hosiery factories, evidence remains of the steps of past workers, as their boots pressed these metal filings into the wooden floor.

riazati oa 04Some mills in Carr’s local textile empire are no longer standing, while others are in states of disrepair or renovation.

riazati oa 05In 1913, the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” was installed on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the dedication, Carr delivered a speech that made explicit the statue’s message of racial violence and white supremacy. After decades of student-led activism to have the statue removed, protesters toppled it in August 2018.

riazati oa 06Marble angels in the Old Maplewood Cemetery in Durham.

riazati oa 07In her family memoir Proud Shoes, Murray describes how she grew up in the shadow of Maplewood Cemetery, which stretched down to her backdoor. This cannon, positioned prominently alongside Confederate veteran grave markers, still points downhill at her childhood home. In 2016, Murray’s house was listed as a National Historic Landmark. It will be home to the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, a museum and community center, set to open to the public in 2020.

riazati oa 08In 1956, Pauli Murray published Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, a memoir of her family history and her childhood in Durham.

riazati oa 09Durham’s Geer Cemetery

“Dispatches from the CDS” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Sarah Riazati is a documentary artist who uses moving images and computational techniques to tell true stories that build bridges between unexpected connections. She is a graduate of the School of Media and Journalism at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she worked on interactive storytelling projects that won awards from College Photographer of the Year and SXSW Interactive Awards. In 2014, she was a filmmaking resident at Fabrica Communications Research Centre in Treviso, Italy. She gained professional experience as a video and interactive producer for New York–based creative agencies, editorial outlets, and production companies before beginning a freelance filmmaking and design business based in North Carolina. She has taught courses in digital storytelling, ethics, and web development at UNC-Chapel Hill, and she is a current MFA candidate in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University.