Local artists reflect on human rights struggles.
By: Alex Bertsch firstname.lastname@example.org
On Thursday, I sat among a standing-room-only crowd in the Fargo Theatre’s “Theater #2.” All were there to attend The Human Family’s “Experimental and Animated Film Series,” a part of The Human Family’s Human Rights Arts Festival. The final film to play that night, titled “Wardi,” is an animated film that told stories of suffering and hope in Palestinian refugee camps. By the end of the film, the audience was in tears.
“I Just Had No Idea”
The Human Family, which operates The Human Rights Film Festival as well as The Human Rights Art Festival, was established in 2017.
“The genesis of the organization actually happened a little bit earlier in the fall of 2016 in conjunction with the peaceful resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline installation in North Dakota,” Human Family Executive Director Sean Coffman said. “What we saw coming out of that peaceful movement was just some incredible films and documentaries and artwork and photographs and different types of poetry, and we just realized that in today’s society and culture a lot of that would probably be lost.”
Coffman noted that with the amount of media being created everyday, this art could end up just getting buried. However, there were other concerns as well.
“We knew that this really significant historical event would probably be minimized by the state of North Dakota,” Coffman said. “So we wanted to create a venue where we could intentionally bring back a lot of these stories, this artwork, to make sure people were aware and educated about what was going on.”
As the festivals have continued on, Coffman said, their goals have become broader as they try to encourage education and understanding of many human rights issues, and to combat misinformation.
“We have the ability to educate our communities around a particular issue,” Coffman said. “And demonstrate that there’s nothing to be afraid of and that we need to exercise compassion, empathy and understanding, and I think we’re doing that.”
The response to the festival has been largely positive in Coffman’s view.
“My favorite thing to hear after one of our festivals or events is ‘I just had no idea,’” Coffman said. “The process of people saying that, making that statement, is a testament to the fact that we’re providing them with an alternative perspective, an alternative idea that they hadn’t heard before, and now that we’ve done that they have that ability to process the situation a little bit differently.”
Coffman said the organization is making a “little incremental change” in the communities they visit because of the festival.
In addition to “Wardi,” the festival has also featured other films that have resonated with audiences in the past, like the 2017 documentary “Warhoused,” which is about refugees living in Dabaad, Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp. This also had a strong impact on festival attendees. Coffman believes these stories resonate with the festival audience because of their human elements.
“I think the reason that people in North Dakota are connecting with these issues that are worlds away from us is because we realize that those human stories and the aspirations of humankind are universal,” Coffman said. “We all want a safe place to live, we all want to live in peace with our families, we all want to not have to worry about hunger, we all want to make sure ourselves and our loved ones and our friends are healthy and cared for … And when we look at that through the lens of these individuals being very similar to us in many ways, it opens up that opportunity for North Dakotans to empathize with a Somali refugee, or a Palestinian refugee, and we realize that we aren’t quite as different as maybe we thought we were.”
This year, the festival made its first trip to Minot, North Dakota. In the future, Coffman hopes that the festival can expand beyond the four major cities, and move into more rural communities.
“Our goal for the festivals is really to continue expanding and broaden the audience that gets to see these films and discuss these works of art,” Coffman said. “We want to bring these conversations into communities that may not traditionally have these conversations.”
Also featured at the exhibition was “Eviction,” an experimental film by local filmmaker Oscar De Leon. “Eviction” tells the story of a world-weary young man haunted by a mysterious knocking inside his apartment as he starts to lose his grip on reality.
In De Leon’s view, “Eviction” is a departure from some of the things that he made before.
“I would say that a lot of the stuff I make is personal, and it does reflect my experience as a minority,” De Leon said. “When I’m working, I don’t want to make it super obvious, I don’t want to hit people over the head with it, but I do want it to be present. So with “Eviction” in particular, a lot of the injustice stuff was up in front, but it wasn’t necessarily about that so much as it was about the horror of living inside that reality.”
De Leon is light-skinned, and as he told me, this has made how he experiences racism different from that of other people.
“My experience is interesting, because I am light-skinned, so what I experienced was a lot of overt racism to my face, not knowing that I was aware of them being racist,” De Leon said. “Socially, when Trump became president, a lot of white liberal Democrats were like, ‘Where did this come from?’ But that stuff has been ever present in my life. Most of my family members have been chastised by people who are racist, or run out of town because they were dark-skinned.”
De Leon said that living as a minority in Fargo has made him aware of a lot of the racism in the city.
“My personal experience in Fargo, being someone like that, is seeing that overt racism in the fabric of this city, and really being vocal about that, and fighting against it,” De Leon said. “It’s not diverse by any means, and it’s getting better, but you have to have people who are willing to take the risk to speak out against it and make art that reflects these types of issues.”
De Leon also talked about the struggles that artists and minorities face in the increasingly gentrified landscape of Fargo. In his 2017 documentary “The New Direction,” De Leon told the story of the titular music venue, which was forced to close down due to rising rents.
“When we were making it, all we were thinking was, ‘let’s tell the story of these kids that are running their own music venue,’” De Leon said. “Now it’s an escape room, which is funny, because that’s like the key to any gentrification.”
Over the course of working on the documentary, what they saw was a group of artists struggling to make ends meet.
“It was specifically because of what is happening with downtown expansion,” De Leon said. “The rents are rising, and what that does is drive poor people, and people of color, who, spoiler alert, are poor, out of this area.”
As we sat in Youngblood Coffee, De Leon illustrated the problems facing minorities and artists in working in downtown Fargo.
“We’re in this coffee shop, and it’s a hip place to be, but the problem is the systemic institutions of who’s actually running the businesses,” De Leon said. “I can’t think of any minorities that are running any businesses that aren’t restaurants. We have companies downtown that are monopolies over the cultural zeitgeist that they are trying to perpetuate.”
In De Leon’s opinion, however, change is on the horizon.
“I’ve been doing this independently for ten years, I’ve been scraping from the bottom,” De Leon said. “In my time, honestly in the last few years, I’ve seen an actual connection. Now there is something happening, and it may not take root for the next few years, but I think we are in a cultural sea change in Fargo, and I think that if we keep fighting, something can blossom out of it.”
Kevin Ackley has been working with De Leon for 10 years as part of their business, Chamber 6 Media.
“I don’t know if there’s a specific mission other than us trying to do what we want all the time,” Ackley said. “Some of that has the social justice angle, some of that has more of an aesthetic angle, but I think that’s really the main driver of why we do it.”
Ackley, who attended MSUM for film production, spoke about how a concern for human rights influences his own work. In his most recent film, a science fiction short titled “Michael!”, Ackley said that he was not focusing on any particular social aspect, but that his work was still influenced by a concern for other people.
“I see anything that I make, even if it doesn’t have a social justice angle to it, as a translation of that aspect of my personality,” Ackley said. “I do fundamentally care about the world and the people in it. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that we don’t want to suffer.”
The changing landscape of Fargo has made the work of artists difficult, however. As Ackley noted, finding space to work has become more and more difficult as rents rise and artists are driven out.
“It obviously fractures (the arts community,)” Ackley said. “When all of the artists are in one location, it’s a lot easier to collaborate, or at least you have a sense of community.”
Early on, Chamber 6 lost their studio space in the Spirit Room when the space was purchased by Kilbourne Group, and the rents were raised.
“When we were getting kicked out of the Spirit Room, I really wished that we lived in a state that had the right of first refusal,” Ackley said. “It would be so much more geared around what artists want to do, if artists ran it.”
Studio spaces in downtown Fargo have seen rents skyrocket since Chamber 6 Media first got started.
“Now, it further atomizes it, that’s what capitalism does … it atomizes everybody,” Ackley said. “We were fortunate enough to be able to team up with Plants for Patients to have our studio in the Gardner, because otherwise it would have been twice as expensive for us, and even still, what we’re paying in the Gardner is twice as expensive as what we were paying in the Spirit Room.”
In Ackley’s view, this has only served to further divide the arts community.
“I don’t know what happened to those other artists (in the Spirit Room),” Ackley said. “Do they just work out of their apartment now, or what? It’s just clearly not as conducive.”
For Ackley, the only solution is to just keep working.
“It’s clearly just difficult to survive as an artist as is,” Ackley said. “It’s even harder when everything about the arts is subject to the whims of the market.”
“Columbus Landed, Columbus Fell”
When I first spoke to Bismarck photographer Shane Balkowitsch, this was among the first things he told me.
“I just killed Christopher Columbus yesterday in my studio,” Balkowitsch said. “It’s called ‘Columbus Landed, Columbus Fell.’ As a gentleman who has many Native American friends … certain topics become sore spots, and Columbus Day is one of those things.”
Records show that over 80 million indigenous peoples have died since Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.
“So yesterday, I fixed that,” Balkowitsch said.
Balkowitsch’s work has engrossed him in the Native community since he began his ongoing series “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Wet Plate Perspective.”
“I’m on a 20 year journey of capturing Native Americans in the process that I practice,” Balkowitsch said. “I’m 396 plates in out of 1000 plates.”
Balkowitsch’s journey capturing images of Native peoples through the wet plate process began after he learned about Orlando Scott Goff. In 1881 photographer Orlando Scott Goff took the first photograph of Hukpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull.
“With that, I found out about Ernie LaPointe, the great grandson of Sitting Bull,” Balkowitsch said. “And so 135 years later, I had him to my studio, and I captured the great grandson of Sitting Bull in the same process in the same city that Goff did.”
This photo became the first in Balkowitsch’s ongoing series. It also fostered a friendship that would help to connect Balkowitsch with the indigenous community in North Dakota.
“It was that friendship, and him introducing me to Native American culture and beliefs, that started this series,” Balkowitsch said.
Balkowitsch was the first photographer allowed to photograph at the Standing Rock encampment.
“I was there really early on when the camp was just getting started, and there was a big sign at the fence that said ‘No cameras allowed,’” Balkowitsch said. “It was this friendship that I already had with the tribe that really knocked that door down.”
Balkowitsch first went to Standing Rock after hearing the stories from the protestors who came into his studio.
“If I ignored the issue, I would have had to stop what I was on,” Balkowitsch said. “These people were coming into my studio. One young lady came in who had lost the vision in her eye from being shot in the face. They were coming in and telling me these stories from the front lines.”
This friendship also allowed Balkowitsch to photograph climate activist Greta Thunberg, for his piece “Standing for us All’’ which is featured in the Human Rights Arts Festival.
“It was just one call down to Standing Rock, saying ‘If you can give me 15 minutes with Greta, I can get this captured for us,’ and sure enough, that call came through,” Balkowitsch said.
This work has made Balkowitsch a trusted member of the native community. Balkowitsch was granted a formal naming ceremony by the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation, in which he was given the name “Shadow Catcher.”
“I mean when’s the last time that a white guy was given a formal Native American name for something that he’s working on?” Balkowitsch said. “It’s never happened.”
Balkowitsch acknowledged the privilege that he has as a white man, especially in how it insulates him from the struggles of Native peoples.
“I can’t ever put myself in their shoes. I can never be a minority that has been mistreated,” Balkowitsch said. “What I can do is have empathy, and what I can do is lend a hand.”
Balkowitsch hopes that his work can help to illuminate the problems with white supremacy in North Dakota, especially in light of recent protests and attacks on his work.
“You have to acknowledge that,” Balkowitsch said of North Dakota’s history with white supremacy. “It should mean something that you can say that, and that I can say that, because I was f- – – – – – raised here. This is my town … it gave me no pleasure to drag the Bismarck name through the mud these last couple of weeks, but maybe it had to be done.”
Balkowitsch has also faced personal threats for continuing to pursue social justice through his work. Over the past few weeks, he has faced direct harassment for a mural of his work in Bismarck, North Dakota.
“Did I expect this? Did I expect harassment? Did I expect stories calling me a Nazi?” Balkowitsch asked. “Did I expect someone calling into a restaurant while I was out to dinner with my friends, and the waitress would bring over the phone and ask ‘Are you Shane Balkowitsch?’ and I would take the phone and the person would hang up? Did I expect that threat on that night? No, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to cower from that.”
Balkowitsch said that it has been difficult to fight this harassment, but he does have something that his harassers don’t.
“My weapon is my art,” Balkowitsch said. “And my detractors don’t have that weapon.”