CLEVELAND, Ohio — Three years after releasing documentary “Dispatches from Cleveland” about the police murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Shaker Heights native and Emmy Award-nominated producer, director and writer Catherine Gund turned the camera on her Cleveland-born art collector and philanthropist mother, Agnes.
The result is new feature-length documentary “Aggie,” which exposes the power of art to transform consciousness, inspire social change and commit to social justice issues.
The film opens with Aggie selling Roy Lichetenstein’s “Masterpiece” for $165 million to start The Art for Justice Fund, which has a mission to reform the American criminal justice system and end mass incarceration.
Founder of Aubin Pictures, Catherine Gund has spent her life in media focusing on strategic and sustainable social transformation, arts and culture, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, and the environment.
Beginning Friday (Oct. 9), both the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Cinematheque and Cleveland Cinemas (Cedar Lee, the Capitol and Chagrin Cinemas) are streaming “Aggie” in their respective virtual screening rooms.
We caught up with the filmmaker to discuss “Aggie,” the power of art and The Art for Justice Fund.
Catherine, congrats on the film. Considering documentary filmmaking is your trade, was one day turning the camera on your mother always the plan?
I wasn’t ever intending to make a film about her. I thought that would not be a smart thing to do, but I did want to do some archival interviews with her. She’s notoriously camera shy, but I asked her if I could just talk to her on tape because we don’t have any footage of her. While I was doing that, The Art for Justice Fund was evolving into this incredible model of a way to get money and resources to leaders and activists working together to end mass incarceration. I wanted other people to know about it and to maybe follow suit in one way or another — whether it’s to vote, organize their family and friends, make a billboard or whatever people can do to really feel their agency and imagination. Then I realized after (filming) 10 of these conversations that I could actually make a (documentary) out of this. My films tend to happen to me. I don’t usually set out with a very clear plan.
It’s funny, most people would either be thrilled or terrified about having creative control over a documentary of a parent.
I still don’t think of it as a portrait of her or a biographical film because to me it’s really about The Art for Justice Fund. It’s kind of unspooling how did the person who had this vision come to be a person who would do that, because not everybody would. And certainly, not a person who fit some of her identity categories. People don’t expect that from wealthy, white people.
What stands out in “Aggie” is while the selling of “Masterpiece” to fund such a lofty social justice goal is a unique story, the painting that was clearly personal to your mother actually meant she had skin in what turns out to be an important game.
I love how she has come to understand that feeling. How she dreaded it at first, then grieved it and how she’s very, very clear that that painting is just an object and that the moral and significant result of participating in a movement to end racial injustice is more important. I appreciate when she does allow herself to acknowledge how hard that was. She was friends with the artist. She had that painting hanging over that fireplace for 40 years. The magic of this sale is what I’m trying to explain in the film, which is that she wouldn’t normally sell a painting for money. She doesn’t think of painting as money. She doesn’t invest in them in the way a lot more people are doing now. She doesn’t sell them or store them and wait for them to appreciate in value and then sell them for profit. She gives the artwork she buys immediately to museums and galleries and universities so they can be more accessible to more people. So in that sense it was a very unusual thing for her to openly sell a painting, but the money was just in passing. She was selling the painting to invest in ending mass incarcerations. She was turning the painting into justice, in my opinion.
Since its inception in 2017, what kind of impact has The Art for Justice Fund made across the nation?
There are all kinds of big and small examples. One of the most important right now is the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition started by Desmond Meade. In 2018, it presented a ballot passed by more than 75 percent of voters that allowed formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions to be allowed to vote. That’s a big deal. Then the right wing slammed back and said they had to pay all of their fines and fees before voting. That’s tantamount to a poll tax, which is illegal. Desmond has been very creative in his response to these challenges. He said we’ll have them work for me doing community service where they register other returning (ex-convicts) because they’re the best people knowing what the other person has been through. Also, a lot of people like Aggie, The Art for Justice Fund, LeBron James, John Legend and many thousands have come forward with money to pay off the fines and fees of formerly incarcerated people so they could register to vote.
In making “Aggie,” what kind of uphill battle did you face eschewing the film becoming about the aggrandization of a wealthy white woman?
It’s an important question, but it’s not a challenge to me. The Art for Justice Fund was created as a five-year spend down. She was very clear about this from the beginning. The money needs to be repatriated. It’s almost a reparation. It’s about getting more money into the field as quickly as possible to the leadership, visionaries, artists and advocates who are already working on this issue. I also think that, although I’m not trying to create some kind of hero worship, I’m not even necessarily saying that she’s the perfect ally. What I do think is she’s the co-conspirator and that we need more white people to talk to other white people about being anti-racist. We can’t leave the dialogue and the conversation only to the white nationalists. Those are the white people who have a bigger stage with a lot of bullhorns. We need more white people who are in this fight together as co-conspirators, who are educating themselves, joining the community and making this change.
Finally, what do you hope audiences take away from “Aggie?”
I think the timeliness of it is amazing because we have a government that is very tied to the past. I want people to take away that Aggie is living in the present and the future. Everyone in the film is providing us a serious hopefulness and a commitment to the future. We’re saying this is the kind of world we want to live in. My mother doesn’t spend all of her time reacting to the rabid hatred, divisiveness and fear that is being harvested around us. Instead, she’s saying where do we want to go, where’s the joy, where’s the beauty and how do we heal and grieve so we can get there together? What I want people to take away is really a rich sense of the transformative power of art.
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