Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors.
During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Arthur Dong interviewed seven men. He sat with them, talked with them, looked them in their eyes. He gave them his full attention and complete respect. Not one for twisting stories, he filmed them in a way that told their truth. These men were also Dong’s worst fear.
In his 1997 documentary Licensed to Kill, Arthur Dong begins by telling viewers about his own narrow escape from a homophobic attack which left him fearful and wary when walking alone. Dong confronted his fear through his film. He wanted to understand the people making these attacks, so he went into prisons to interview seven men, each one convicted of a homophobic murder. While this itself is remarkable—to sit across from someone who decided to murder someone just for being who they are—what is even more extraordinary is how he approached each story. Dong tries to understand each man and his background. He doesn’t demonize them; he helps us to see them as human. Each convicted murderer has their own troubled past, their own story to tell. Licensed to Kill allows both Dong and the viewer to understand the full story on why these men committed the crimes.
Not many visiting filmmakers at the Walker created as much political and community impact as Arthur Dong’s artist residency in April 1998. His visit was centered on the Twin Cities premiere of Licensed to Kill, but also involved screenings of his other documentaries and community events to support the Twin Cities LGBTQ community. As Licensed to Kill focuses in part on a crime that took place in Minneapolis, his visit ultimately became a way for the public to discuss their fears and hopes about transforming this area into a safer, more accepting community.
The Twin Cities case featured in Licensed to Kill involved a young man named Jay Johnson who shot two men on separate evenings in areas of the city notorious for gay cruising. During Dong’s residency he was able to go back to the prison in St Cloud and tape an interview with Johnson after he viewed the film. Johnson discussed his thoughts on the film and the other murderers featured alongside his story. As he spoke with the director, he seemed to be considering the gravity of his actions for the first time. His conversation with Dong was the first interview Johnson allowed to be conducted. Johnson explained that he’d witnessed too many of his fellow inmates become traumatized after allowing interviews with local news programs who sensationalize their stories. Johnson trusted Dong because he researched Dong’s career.
Dong aims to make unbiased documentaries. “As a filmmaker, part of what I struggle with and try to do in the editing room is to allow the space for the viewer to participate in the interpretation of what I’m doing,” Dong told the Gay and Lesbian Review in 2005. “Certainly I have a point of view, but you in the audience can also delve into your own personal experiences and your own interpretation of what is being transmitted on that two-dimensional, flat screen.” This generosity—allowing viewers their own opinion—is what makes his work so remarkable.
Dong’s weeklong Walker residency ran from April 14 to 18, but was jam-packed with community events and discussions: a workshop at MCAD, a screening of Licensed to Kill with a discussion at South High School, multiple screenings of his films at the Walker, panel discussions with Minneapolis residents and members of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), along with a follow-up interview with one of the convicted killers featured in the documentary Licensed to Kill.
Panels held by PFLAG allowed community members to discuss lingering feelings about Jay Johnson’s crime along with how to make the Twin Cities a safer place. The panel members were open to discussing their own experiences—from having LGBTQ children, the impact of religion, and the influence that the community plays in this kind of violence. One panel member emphasized the importance of listening to and understanding the perpetrators in order to stop hate crimes. Dong ended the discussion with a motto, which is crucial to many community issues: “Think globally, act locally.”
Arthur Dong’s visit emphasized the importance of discussing local events and crimes with other community members. Licensed to Kill resonates with current issues facing Minnesota such as anti-bullying policies and the safety of the Minneapolis LGBTQ community. The Walker recently hosted Joshua Oppenheimer, a visiting filmmaker whose film dealt with similar topics. His documentary The Act of Killing, focuses on interviewing Indonesian men who killed thousands of people in an anti-communist purge and their reasoning behind these killings.
Arthur Dong’s visit 16 years ago created a discourse between the arts community and the Twin Cities at large that remains relevant today. His residency not only featured screenings of award-winning documentaries, but also inspired community and political action around the Twin Cities.