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Documentary series explores politics

(Photo provided)

SARANAC LAKE — Documentary filmmakers Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller look to expose injustice in the world. They want to tell stories that people have never heard before.

“I’m not a filmmaker who thinks my movie will dramatically change the world,” Ellis said in an phone interview, “but it’s a little piece of that change. My hope is that they give people the strength and belief that they can make a bigger change.”

The filmmakers will host screenings of their three documentaries this weekend in a series called “The Art of the Political Documentary.” The first, “The FBI’s War on Black America,” will screen at Lake Flower Landing in Saranac Lake Friday at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10. The next two, “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” and “Peace Has No Borders” will screen at the State Theater in Tupper Lake Saturday and Sunday at 4:30 p.m., respectively. Tickets are $6. Ellis and Mueller will hold a Q&A after each screening.

“The FBI’s War on Black America” from 1990 focuses on COINTELPRO, a series of secret and at times illegal federal investigations of progressive groups and individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party.

“That film was made almost by accident,” Mueller said. “We wanted to do a film about the Black Power Movement and then we started learning from our characters that (COINTELPRO) should be the focus of the film. People didn’t know much about it at that time. We were stunned by its manifesto, which said, ‘prevent the rise of a black messiah.'”

Documentary filmmakers Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller. (Photo provided)

The Howard Zinn film, which was released in 2004 and shortlisted for an Academy Award, is essentially a biography of the historian, activist and author of “A People’s History of the United States.” Ellis and Mueller said they wanted to make a film about someone in the present who has also commented on and been a part of multiple generations. After compiling footage and interviews, the pair said they didn’t know how to end the documentary.

“Then 9/11 happened,” Ellis said. “It was an event that renewed how Howard Zinn spoke to an audience. It was a tragic event that was able to wrap up the film dramatically.”

“Peace Has No Borders” from 2017 follows a group of U.S. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who sought refuge in Canada from subsequent tours.

Ellis and Mueller said one of the main obstacles to a documentary is finding the balance between information and entertainment. You want people learn something, but they’ll only learn if you engage them and present the material in an interesting way.

“It’s always a challenge,” Mueller said, “and I know that’s cliche to say, but you have to be knowledgeable that it’s still a film. It’s a movie. Keep it moving.”

“You also have to appeal to a universal audience,” Ellis added. “A lot of these types of documentaries might speak only to the already-converted unless you make a film with a dramatic arc.”

Because the films follow real people, Ellis and Mueller said they get involved with their subjects’ lives and form special relationships.

“I end up just having a lot of admiration for the people we film,” Ellis said. “You really start to inhabit the story you’re telling. It’s enriching, but you continue to live the stories after the characters have moved on. I remember calling up Kim, who was in ‘Peace Has No Borders,’ after the film was finished, and her comment was ‘that all feels so long ago to me.’ She has five children and has separated from the man she was with.”

The documentaries take time, the two said, sometimes nearly a decade. The end product might be drastically different from what was originally planned.

“I always joke that I’m on the ten-year plan,” Ellis said. “Each one is a project that we dug into, particularly with ‘Peace Has No Borders.’ We stuck with it an awfully long time to see the story play out, and we got to watch the evolution of a social movement.

“We thought it was going to be a quick, optimistic, heroic film,” she continued. “It transformed in to something much more drawn out and difficult as we followed it.”

If you go …

What: “The FBI’s War on Black America”

Where: Lake Flower Landing, 421 Lake Flower Ave., Saranac Lake

When: Friday at 7 p.m.

How much: Suggested donation of $10

What: “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”

Where: The State Theater, 100 Park St., Tupper Lake

When: Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

How much: Tickets are $6

What: “Peace Has No Borders”

Where: The State Theater, 100 Park St., Tupper Lake

When: Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

How much: Tickets are $6