The Marquee

What’s happening at The Picture House

A Conversation with Filmmaker Jeff Watkins

by Sarah Soliman

This week we recognize both MLK Jr Day of Service tomorrow and the National Day of Racial Healing on Tuesday, January 18. As a film center, we believe in the power of film to prompt necessary — sometimes difficult — conversations and inspire community engagement. To honor these two days, we spoke with filmmaker and Pelham resident Jeff Watkins, who has made a documentary about Pelham’s history, and its journey towards racial justice over the past year and a half. 

The Picture House: What inspired you to make this film? 

Jeff Watkins: It was a manifestation of a range of personal experiences from the past, as a kid growing up in Mount Vernon, and real-time as a current Pelham resident, and history that I am inspired by. There were interesting dynamics and conflicts I witnessed and experienced that started swirling in my mind as a great foundation for a compelling story to be told. The history, reflection, growth, and issues that occurred in this small town are relatable and happening in many across the country or world even. As a storyteller, I saw it as an opportunity to create a piece that gives a voice to the issues and discussions happening, and offer hope and inspiration that grace and healing can be enjoyed even after disheartening situations. That’s something I wanted to offer the world and inspired me to move forward in creating this film, while sharing a piece of myself at the same time.  

TPH: What do you hope audiences will gain from watching this together in a theater?

JW: I want the audience to gain a sense of understanding and awareness of the human experience from different perspectives and backgrounds, and how they all are woven in the fabric of community from a small town to nationwide. Listen, lead with curiosity and empathy, choose grace over judgment. We haven’t gotten where we are today by accident or circumstance, much has gotten us here, but love and grace can save us all. I want people who view this film to find their voice, to lead where they stand, to do right by others. 

TPH: What other films would you recommend to audience members interested in racial justice or community activism?

JW: Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (2017, dir. John Ridley), I Am Not Your Negro (2016, dir. Raoul Peck), 13th 2016, dir. Ava DuVernay), Do the Right Thing (1989, dir. Spike Lee), Judas & the Black Messiah (2021, dir. Shaka King)

TPH: What advice would you give to aspiring documentary filmmakers?

JW: To be in the present and receive experiences, from those that make you feel great down to the ones that are unsavory or less desired. At the same time, reflect and appreciate history as the human experience moves in waves and seasons. Being able to do both opens your ability to connect with a deeper range of human experiences, allows you to actually see stories in a more dynamic way, and that is the fuel that connects with audiences. Lead with curiosity and questions and live in your authenticity. Let go of your ego and be committed to your story and ideals so much that it overcomes your doubts and fears in telling it. The actual process of filmmaking and learning the craft is the easy part after that.