An interview with Lucy Massie Phenix

Milliarium Zero: How did you get into filmmaking?

Lucy Massie Phenix: I had been involved with an American Friends Service Committee Project during the Civil Rights Movement, subsequently getting my teaching credentials, and was teaching at the Children's Community Workshop School in New York City, when, with several filmmaker friends, signed up to help during the filming of the Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit in the winter of l970.

MZ: Why did you decide to make You Got to Move?

LMP: Three incidents converged in my life that led to the beginning of You Got to Move. I was in the final months of editing The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter in Berkeley, CA. Myles Horton, the founder of Highlander Folk School, and someone I had come to know during the Civil Rights Movement when I was involved with the school, came to give a series of classes about Highlander and grass roots social change for John Hurst's classes at UC Berkeley, which I attended.
        At the same time, President Carter had signed Presidential Directive 59, the so-called First Strike Directive, which stated that the US would make a first strike in case of a nuclear war; and I attended a weekend conference sponsored by the Physicians for Social Change on the Medical Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War.
        After that weekend, I was unsure that making films was the most direct way to effect change about this most urgent matter, and was considering becoming involved in anti-nuclear work. It was at this point that I realized how powerless I felt and how powerless most of the people I knew felt, even though we cared deeply about making the world safer. I then understood that what Myles Horton was talking about, the idea of helping people realize and act on their own power to effect social change, was what I needed to make a film about.
        I went to Tennessee in the winter of l980 to begin research on You Got to Move. That spring I managed to get a producer of Bill Moyers Journal to come interview Myles Horton and convince Bill Moyers to do a two-part Bill Moyers Journal with Myles Horton. I believe that this was the final BMJ before the show was discontinued. It aired in June of l981. And because of this, I was freed from having to make a film on the history of Highlander or the story of Myles Horton, and could turn my attention to my original question: What is it that changes people from feeling powerless to making them see and feel their own power in bringing about changes that will affect their lives?
        I began sending out fundraising letters, not remotely realizing how naive filmmakers were in those days—I dare say still are—about how much money it takes to make a film. I got verbal support from the then-existing Film Fund, and received a check from a woman I didn't know for $10,000, and that was what started me on the way. (I was to have to raise around $325,000 before the film was finished, from Humanities and Arts Councils, from foundations, and from individuals. This was the most relentless work throughout the 4 years of making the film.)
        I did about half the filming before I asked my friend, Veronica Selver, with whom I had worked onWord Is Out, to come to Tennessee to work with me. Veronica Selver and Cappy Coates came in l983, expecting to spend several months working on You Got to Move, and left several years later, in l985 when the film was finished.

MZ: How did you go about selecting and contacting the people in it?

LMP: From the beginning, I was clear about what I wanted the import of the film to be: not the history of Highlander, but how people changed and became empowered. But it is much harder to make a film about PROCESS than it is to have people tell stories about history. So what I was looking for, and what we were looking for when Veronica and Cappy came to work on the film, was people who would talk about their PROCESS, what they were like before, how they felt powerless and what they did, step by step to change.
        The film has more women than men in it for this reason. We interviewed some wonderful people from the labor movement, and intended for the labor era of Highlander's work in the 30's and 40's to be represented in the film. But finally, we decided that Bill Saunders, who represented both Civil Rights and Labor organizing would tell the story of labor because he could talk about his Process of becoming empowered as well as the way that others were empowered in the work he did.

MZ: Have you kept in touch with any of them? If so, what are they up to now?

LMP: Myles Horton and Bernice Robinson have gone on as they say, and it fits these two, whose work keeps going on and on through those who have followed in their footsteps. Bill Saunders continues to be a leader and teacher in his community of North Charleston and Johns Island, S.C., Becky Simpson is still helping to keep the Cranks Creek Survival Center going in the midst of massive renewed devastation from mountaintop removal in the mountains of Appalachia. Bernice Johnson Reagon led the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock to worldwide fame and influence even as she was Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institute. She recently sang with her daughter Toshi at the 75th Anniversary Celebration of Highlander Center in New Market, Tn. And we have interviewed the women from Bumpass Cove who, while not keeping up their involvement against toxic waste dumps once the dump in their community was closed, speak of the effect of those years on their subsequent lives and consciousness.

MZ: How was the production/filming, etc?

LMP: Early on, it took some getting used to being remote from crews and centers of production. The action followed the crews' availability rather than the reverse. A crew would come down to do days of shooting in many locations during one shoot, and the shoots were limited. The editing process was lengthy, finding the shape of the film that was telling many stories , rather than one. We had to leave out many stories and scenes that would have made other, perhaps more beautiful, films. Often Veronica and I felt we had to give up tangential or subtle stories in favor of the ones with greater meaning, since we felt that there was an urgency to brining about the social change that was needed. I find that filmmaking that comes out of involvement in social action often is less concerned with the aesthetics of a film than the informative effect. And yet we both had enough experience to know that art can be more deeply affecting than polemics. So in the editing, we were always walking that line. We were greatly helped by the participation of Myles Horton, as a friend and as a teacher, who encouraged us, and trusted us without asking for any editorial control. I wrote an article about this in an issue devoted to Myles Horton in a magazine called Social Change.
        But the longest process was that of fundraising. I was to have to raise around $325,000 before the film was finished, from Humanities and Arts Councils, from foundations, and from individuals. I was constantly writing proposals, in these days BEFORE computers, so that each correction or addition had to be made by retyping whole proposals! This was the most relentless work throughout the 4 years of making the film.
        One of the stories we decided to leave out was the story of Rosa Parks. Rosa is one of the people, along with Martin Luther King, who made Highlander famous during the days of the Civil Rights Movement. We did an extensive interview with E.D. Nixon, the architect of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, who was the person who recognized that Rosa Parks, one of many black people who had been arrested for not giving up a seat to a white bus rider, was the person who would best represent the unfairness of the system of segregated buses. And though we talked with Rosa Parks when she was visiting in Washington, D.C., we did not interview her for the film. So finally we decided not to use this story in the film. One of the many resons was that we wanted the film to be about unknown grass roots people who had becojme leaders in their communities, and Rosa was famous.

MZ: What does the film's present re-release mean to you and what might it meant to others? How do you think it's aged?

LMP: This film was a favorite of Paul Wellstone's who used it in his classes, and recommended it widely. It was also a favorite of Al Gore's mother, a Tennessean who saw it and was proud that it was partially funded by the Tennessee Committee for the Humanities. It states some of the basic premises of democracy:

A new generation of Americans is ready and eager to hear about the process that has brought this country to be, until recently, a model of democracy.
        The film continues to be useful in gatherings of people trying to bring about structural change in their communities and workplaces.. Although it is dated in some minor ways (people in the film are labelled "Communists" instead of, as they might be labelled today "terrorists." - whatever name the powers that be want to use to stir up fear in the imaginations of the larger commjunity) the stories of denial of civil and human rights continue unabated, especially in communities of immigrants, of economically poor or working class people, of people who can be isolated and rendered powerless by the forces of institutional power in this scociety. In other words, the process of people coming to be stand up against these forces will never be outdated or irrelevant. and the need for human beings to realize the strenght there is in numbers standing up against illegal, immoral authority will always assert itself in the lives of people in the United States and around the world.
        So now, with a new translation in Spanish, and in a form and at a cost that is accessible, we hope that this film will be USED by people to stand up for their rights and for what they and their children deserve as members of the human society.

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