Down to her bunned hair and the Perrier bottle at her fingertips, Sarah Riazati is an artist, and so she speaks with an artist’s precision: She doesn’t “shoot” so much as “film”; she prefers to “make” a picture rather than “take” one. Which means that, this past August, weeks after winning the Princess Grace Foundation Award to help fund her film thesis, when she demurs to painstakingly discuss her project, her hesitation speaks volumes of the project’s status: Right now, it could turn into almost anything.
Riazati, a second-year student in Duke’s M.F.A. in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, describes the development process as a “spiral” in which she keeps coming back to the same place: Durham, her home for the past two years. “I think I’ve always been interested in places that I’m inhabiting and what they looked like before,” she says. (Her early metaphor for the project was Palimpsest—“ originally a classical term, then an architecture term for ‘when you turn a building into something else,’ ” she explains.)
Shambhavi Kaul, assistant professor of the practice of filmmaking of Art, Art History & Visual Studies and Riazati’s adviser at Duke, encouraged her to work locally. And after protesters tore down the Confederate monument on East Main Street last August, Riazati focused on the historical layers present in the Bull City, the questions of “Where is Durham going, and where has it been?”
Her thesis will be about Durham, but also it’ll be about those Durham commemorates: people like Julian Carr, the commercial magnate and white supremacist, and Pauli Murray, the civil rights figure who coined “Jane Crow” for the double discrimination women of color face and who now stars in a vibrant downtown mural.
While the duo had vast differences, Riazati explains, tributes to each arose in striking and somewhat harrowing proximity. Upon his death in 1924, Carr was buried a stone’s throw from Murray’s childhood home, in the cemetery where local Confederates were honored. Today, plaques for Murray and Carr face one another on West Chapel Hill Street, barely a block apart.
But in life, too, they overlapped directly: When the twelve-year-old Murray won an award at the local “colored” library, she was recognized for the accomplishment by Carr, a key benefactor of the library. And the more one looks, the more it becomes apparent that a story of the pair—and by association, a story of Durham—resists a telling that’s isolated or definitive; as the title of Riazati’s accompanying installation puts it, “complexity is a family tree.”
“One thing I wanted to avoid was any fixed narrative, of ‘the story is like this,’ ” Riazati says. “That’s a problem with how we think about history, that it was like a fixed set of facts. But really everything is a constructed story that humans made up. And a construction of a story leaves out a lot of things.”
As a documentary artist, Riazati notes that she “can come at it from another angle” from a historian. She refers to the John Akomfrah film Precarity that featured at the Nasher Museum of Art, in which water continually washes over ancient texts, as an influence: She’s trying to embrace “a fluid, messy, contradictory story,” and to poke at the idea of “whether you can trust any narrator.”
In mid-November, Riazati shares a twelve-minute edit with her program peers. It’s evolved from initial concepts of students walking through Pauli Murray’s house, of infinite, faceless speakers weighing the legacy of Carr. What comes across instead is a blending of Durham new and old. Images that must be recent (she began filming last February) appear disconcertingly faded; these layer over black-and-white still frames of the city. Landmarks of industry and destabilization— the train tracks, the Golden Belt factory, the 147 freeway that ruptured the Hayti community—themselves become destabilized and removed from time.
The end product won’t crystallize until the spring. And while Riazati hopes her film “could help people look at familiar terrain with new eyes,” she doesn’t pretend to hold the key to these debates of how a city like Durham should recognize both the famous and forgotten figures of its past. Instead, the film—and Riazati—only aim to add to the list of questions.
“What if a film was a monument?” Riazati asks. “And the film didn’t give you answers and wasn’t fixed in stone and stood there for a hundred years, but was something temporary and an experience you have in a cinema with a hundred neighbors?
“And then...what would happen after?”