The audience was quiet as their eyes were focused on a young Black man who narrated his family origins in South Carolina. His captivating voice segways into one of the most horrifying and inhuman events in recent years – the Emanuel Church shooting. It was emotional but the filmmaker/creative, Jon-Sesrie Goff, was able to orate the event passionately, beautifully and concluding with a peaceful ending. Taji Mag was able to catch up with the artist at the Pop-Up Magazine Winter Tour event in Washington, D.C. for an interview.
Dapper Dr Feel (DDF): What was your inspiration behind After Sherman?
Jon-Sesrie Goff (JSG): It’s a feature-length documentary, that I started in 2014, that was supposed to be a visual survey of the Gullah Geechie corridor. This area existed from Southern North Carolina to Northern Florida. I was going for a very experimental, lyrical approach and it was not a personal film at all, but then I wanted to use it as an opportunity to talk to my family about our land and our Country, that was not used. I just wanted to use the camera to talk about the land.
DDF: The short film version of After Sherman is what you are showing and narrating during the Pop-Up Magazine Tour, correct?
JSG: Yes, the piece has evolved after the Charleston Church Shooting. I had a professor/filmmaker during grad school tell me that I didn’t have the luxury to make an experimental film about this subject matter because it required a strong narrative. For the following four years, I have been finding out through Pop-Up that I was able to hone my narrative voice without it feeling inauthentic. I worked with people who were like “Say this!” and “You deliver it so well!” but it wasn’t me speaking.
With the shooting, I immediately went back because I didn’t want to be apart of the press mob. All my footage from the immediate aftermath is horrible because I was so nervous. There are moments where I was next to my mom and I didn’t want to film her during the emotional moment; I also wanted to protect others as well. So I took more photographs than video footage. A few weeks later I went back, did an oral history with church members, politicians, and people in the community, which is very different from the film I was making. Then I went back to do the ending shots of me standing amongst the country scenery and other visual treatments.
DDF: You had a very emotional moment during your narration, how do you get through it every night?
JSG: This night was emotional because my two cousins were here. They are also heirs to the properties that I mention in the film. My aunt, their mother, appears in the photographs in the film. This was the first time I had family members present at my show on this tour and that was really emotional. When I doing the piece, talking about it or working on it without family members around, I am able to desensitize myself.
DDF: You are a well-rounded artist. How does this project differ from other forms of media that you use?
JSG: Well, a personal documentary is one of the hardest things anyone can do. I apologize because I am a cinematographer and kept asking the cinematographers I was working with, why the film was not done yet because it takes a different type of care. I feel like, as a cinematographer and working in commercial spaces, I would be flown in the night before and out the next day, with that there’s no real attachment to the material. It’s just execution and less of myself present in it. When you put yourself out there like that, if you are a thoughtful person, you have to make careful decisions.
DDF: What were some of the reactions from some of your family and friends in Charleston after you showed them the film?
JSG: After the shooting, there was a Sunday School convention scheduled to be at the church and they still had the convention. Two days after the shooting, kids from Emmanuel church were there. Every year it’s around the same time, so it’s like this weird moment of memorial services and then the convention.
A year after the shooting, I went back and showed people my work in progress to the Sunday School convention. They were excited to see and pointing out people they know in the film and all the other stuff sort of fades away. I made this film so that people in the low country could appreciate how special and unique our culture is and how valuable our land is, that was it. People in the Emmanuel and Charleston Community have been very supportive of the project.
DDF: How much did the documentary “Sherman’s March” influence your project?
JSG: When I first started making it before the shooting. It was an inside joke because I love Sherman’s March, the first commercially successful documentary film. And it’s this guy going back to the south, tracing his family steps and there’s like one scene with black people. I was like “That’s really hard to do?” It’s hard to go down south and the only encounter you have the Black people are with some kids. I respect, Ross McElwee as a filmmaker immensely but I was thinking to myself, “I wanna do After Sherman and it’s going to be about all Black people.” I actually shot the opening sequences shot by shot but it may not make it into the film.
I was happy to see the show and honored to interview Jon, especially because of his previous work with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Pop-Up Magazine 2020 Winter Tour is wrapping on February 22, 2020, but be on the lookout for the full feature film After Sherman by Jon-Sesrie Goff. Website.