Interview with filmmakers of 2018 Slamdance documentary “Man on Fire”

Ron Blanton playing Charles Moore by Caleb KuntzI was hooked before I saw it. As the nephew of a United Methodist pastor (as well as the son and grandson of non-denominational pastors), I knew I had to see Man on Fire at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival. The documentary film is about the bold final act of Rev. Charles Moore, a retired Methodist minister who lit himself on fire in June 2014 to protest the racism of his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas. While in Park City, I had the honor of connecting with Man on Fire Director Joel Fendelman and Producer James Chase Sanchez.

Note: Sanchez is originally from Grand Saline, and he helped spread the word about Rev. Moore’s story after the news first broke. Fendelman began working on a documentary about Rev. Moore as a thesis film for his Master’s degree at UT Austin, and the two soon got connected and began collaborating together on the project. You can read my review of the film here

Andrew Neel (AN): What kept you driving forward in the process of making this film? Was there a point where you felt like quitting, and if so, what compelled you to keep on making it?

Joel Fendelman (JF): There wasn’t a feeling with this film – during the process of making it – of “Is this going to happen?” We didn’t hit struggles in that way. From a practical manner, I was making it for a thesis, and I wanted to graduate. We really just jumped in – (Sanchez) and I talked a little bit. We met up, drove to Grand Saline together, and spent a few nights there. We talked to some people, and set up some interviews. Did some scouting. We set another date. We planned to come back in three weeks. I’d bring a camera and a sound guy. (Sanchez) would line up interviews for four days, and we’d film as much as we could in those four days. We’d go back, set up another round of interviews. We kept going till we got everything and eventually people got sick of us.

AN: How did your relationship with the town of Grand Saline change as the result of making this film?

James Chase Sanchez (JS): I think my relationship began changing even before this film. I helped get this story out to the public in news articles and wrote about it in my dissertation. This led to people saying that I was attacking the town or slandering the town’s character. However, the film altered my relationship with Grand Saline in a different way. Asking friends and family of friends to do interviews pushed some of them away from me; it also caused other townspeople to gossip about who I was and what I was trying to achieve. I totally get this defensive mood, but it was very difficult for me at times interacting with people I know and love and feeling like I was getting a cold shoulder because of what I represented. I hope once people in Grand Saline see the film, however, they will view the work Joel and me were doing as different from their assumptions.

JF: I have gratitude for the people in Grand Saline. Anybody you take a microscope on can look ugly in certain ways. They are acting as a vehicle to talk about these larger subjects. The people I spoke to in Grand Saline were very friendly, very nice, and in my experience, they are good-intentioned people. They are maybe not aware as they could be on certain issues that deal with race. And we’re all there at some level. In the process of making the film, I just wanted to have genuine conversations and interactions with people.

AN: How did faith play a role in your desire to make this film? What is your relationship to faith?

JF: I’m at a place where I’d say I’m Jewish, but not religious. It might be similar to my relationship to Christianity. There’s things in it that I respect dearly. And there are things in the organization of Christianity that don’t speak to me. There’s an internal struggle between these two, and it’s the same internal struggle I have with Judaism.

Originally in making this film, I didn’t see it as a film that, at its core, was dealing with Christianity. What really attracted me to it was – here’s a guy who was willing to give it the ultimate sacrifice for others, for something he believed in deeply. It makes me question – how can I give more in my own life? Maybe a little guilt about how I don’t give enough. I can barely get myself to go to a protest if it’s inconvenient for me. It’s so superficial. It’s just enough to taper the guilt. Charles Moore challenges that, and it hit me in that core place.

JS: When it comes to faith, I think this film really challenges me to think about how much faith I, and others, have. Choosing to self-immolate from a Christian perspective has to be difficult and also theologically challenging. But Moore had the faith to go through with this act in hopes that it might create good. In making this film and talking with others about Charles, I have begun to question where my faith lies, where is the line I draw in the sand. That is question I never considered before this.

AN: How do you think healing can take place in the case of racial animosity in our shared American history? How does Grand Saline — and Charles Moore — offer a lesson for us all?

JF: I think we’re all recovering racists to some degree. And the step is acknowledging that and healing and dealing with it. (In the film) I don’t think people say things that are so dramatically racist, but the way people respond to things is what is interesting. What people don’t say. I see a microcosm for the larger United States. Grand Saline is not so unique. Racism is not just the south. I grew up in Miami. It was a very segregated city. How many segregated neighborhoods are there all across the United States? It’s still there.

JS: I think first we have to look back on our mistakes, our racisms, our problems, and acknowledge the issues there. If we keep attempting to bury the past without actually discussing why got caught up in all of these problems, nothing will ever change. So, I think healing can only occur for people in Grand Saline if they decide to publicly take on their perception problem and have conversations with black communities about these issues.

I believe the story of Charles Moore is inherently the story of Grand Saline. Without Grand Saline’s past and perception, Charles’ death would never have taken place. Saying this, I believe his story is one giving the people of Grand Saline a chance at redemption. His death gave the people a window to talk about issues of racism openly and truthfully. Some people took this to heart; others didn’t. But I think his death shows us the change is still possible and redemption is always available.