Inspired by my experience growing up in Mississippi, Faulkner: The Past Is Never Dead is a reconsideration of the famous American writer and his works for the twenty-first century. I hope this film will give audiences–from Faulkner devotees to novices–new perspectives on how Faulkner addresses issues of America’s complicated past and future.
While scholars have continued to voraciously write on Faulkner, the last Faulkner documentary is from the 1970s. Life on Paper focuses on Faulkner's literary process and selected biographical moments, with less emphasis on his complicated legacy and views on race. Forty years later, I seek to fill that void.
My film does much more than present Faulkner’s life and works; Drawing on my own experience, Faulkner: The Past Is Never Dead challenges viewers to confront the roots of American racism and to grapple with approaching the art of a sometimes problematic artist.
As one of our first interviewees, Dr. Jay Watson describes, Faulkner grapples with the issue of change. He writes about how white southerners’ fear of Black enfranchisement and economic participation led to racist beliefs and ideology. He creates a character, Flem Snopes, who leverages that white fear to amass power. Faulkner’s relevance is painfully obvious. The issues of race and change that animated Faulkner’s writing were and are at the forefront of the American zeitgeist.
During the journey to make this film, my team and I were confronted with a relative dearth of visual archival materials but a wealth of beautiful and impactful words. This constraint led to our hybrid technique to recreate scenes from Faulkner’s life using his and other’s words, with the visuals rooted in archival photographs and descriptions. It was an opportunity to have multiple narrators come together to tell Faulkner’s story, as Faulkner himself did in works like As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom!.
Our editor Emma Morris and I were also faced with the question of what to do with a less than perfect writer in an era of increased and deserved accountability. Faulkner’s contradictory views and actions around race in the South don’t lend to an easy judgment. We curated a diverse range of perspectives that challenge viewers to come to their own conclusions.
The film's re-enactments cover more than five decades of Faulkner's life. They were filmed in the fetid heat of summer in places where Faulkner found inspiration, including his childhood home and Rowan Oak. The re-enactment scenes provide an unflinching look at the man.
Should William Faulkner be judged on his personal flaws or the insights from his literary masterpieces?