The act of watching a documentary in the same room as the subject’s family and friends is a harrowing experience, especially when the subject isn’t there to witness it. For the past two years, co-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner have closely followed the case of Sandra Bland, and Wednesday night was the first time they were showing their film, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, to an audience for its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. The room felt dreary yet at times celebratory—the moments that did give way to laughter and smiles came when Bland’s personality beamed through in clips from her video series, “Sandy Speaks.”
Bland was just 28 years old when she died in the Waller County jail in Texas, after being arrested during a traffic stop for allegedly assaulting a police officer, Brian Encinia. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her family—and the public who watched the story unfold—believed otherwise. In the film, Bland’s guiding voice is woven into a deeper narrative that offers bystanders who didn’t know her personally an avenue to connect with Bland as a human, rather than a statistic, rendering a humanity that’s often conveniently left out of these stories. Davis and Heilbroner present details from the case that weren’t widely known otherwise, as well as intimate moments which the family shared in the days after Bland’s death.
The film, which hits HBO later this year, also gives viewers a wide-lens perspective of the case through conversations with law enforcement, whom the directors had access to because of Heilbroner’s background as a Manhattan prosecutor. The decision to include their side of the story was, not surprisingly, an attempt to keep the tone of the film neutral. After the screening, I met with Davis at the HBO office in Manhattan to discuss Bland’s tragic story and the responsibility of creating a film like this. Our lightly-edited conversation below.
JEZEBEL: Congratulations on a well-done documentary. I’m sure a lot of people don’t expect to see a white woman behind a film like this one. Why did you choose to share Sandra Bland’s story?
KATE DAVIS: Well, I feel I have a track record of making films, for some 15 years, which focus on giving a voice to people whose stories need to be told. Whose voices are often misrepresented or overlooked. I’ve told the story of transgender people—my first film, Southern Comfort, was widely disseminated. And I did a film which recently won a Peabody called The Newburgh Sting, which gave a voice to Muslims who were targeted by the FBI. In this case, Sandy herself, her story, went viral right away, but I felt that she was such an incredible person who had this treasure trove of videos where she herself spoke to so many issues of race and her passionate feelings about educating kids, and unity, and listening to each other. She had so many positive messages that the world had yet to put together.
Given what I do professionally, and what I really care about doing—which is to take complicated stories and fully throw myself into them, even if it takes years, so be it—and paint a full portrait of somebody, I hoped I could be good at doing that. The family chose us. The lead attorney as well. We pitched ourselves, and there were certainly other people who were interested in doing films. But they looked at our work and spoke to us at length before deciding to let us in—so you’d have to ask them why they chose us. But I just hoped that I could tell her story with compassion and journalistic integrity. I understand that my being white could be surprising to some people, but I have a quote stuck in my little office of Malcolm X who said, “I am for truth, no matter who tells it, and I am for justice no matter who it’s for or against.” So I’m just trying to follow my truth.
When did you pitch them? It seemed that you had very early access, shortly after Sandra Bland’s death. What was that process like of trying to bring your vision for the documentary to life, while also being sensitive to a situation that was still so fresh?
Right. It was a really delicate time. It was about seven or eight days after Sandra died that David actually met with them first, and then we both went up and filmed. Our first shoot was down in Houston, actually. But for me, one of the biggest personal challenges was really trying to be sensitive to their grieving process, their shock, you know their emotional state, so that I wasn’t too much in their face with a camera. At the same time, they wanted to make a fuller documentary in order to have an in-depth record of what went down and who Sandy was. And so they were in it. You know, you can’t go half-way, you either make the film or don’t. And I think they just really decided to trust us, and allowed us into very personal situations. Very delicate meetings, and moments at the grave, and so forth. It was a team effort. We all wanted, as the title suggests, to help people remember Sandy, and say her name.
Walk me through the directorial process for you and David, including choosing which elements to include to tell the full story. Because it does focus very much on Sandra and her life, but I can tell that you were trying to be fair and show the full picture.
I think it’s really important to hear from law enforcement as well, for many reasons. One, if we only presented Sandra’s family’s point of view and their attorney’s point of view, anybody who came in with their own point of view and their own bias, and journalists, could fairly jump on the film critically as being one-sided, and we really don’t know what the defense is from law enforcement. So I didn’t want the film to be open to intense criticism and never giving voice to other people who have their versions of what happened, too, and experienced something different. And number two, I really came in there trying to be as open-minded as possible. What is their defense? Why was she in the back? Why was she isolated? Why are there no photographs of her hanging? Why were the jail records filled out the way they were? Why was she arrested? Let’s look at the arrest report… Huh, according to Officer Encinia she attacked him. Let’s look at the dash cam.
So we tried to pose a lot of questions to law enforcement in order to help the audience really judge for themselves more fully what might have happened. I think it just creates a much deeper picture of what went on. And then there’s a third element, which is that Sandra herself, in her videos, doesn’t want people to jump to conclusions and stay in a kind of polarized, us versus them position in the world. She says, “We’re never gonna change that way.” And so, many of her “Sandy Speaks” were about listening to each other and crossing over. In the films, you hear her say, “We’ve gotta listen to each other. That’s the only way this is gonna work. White people don’t have enough black friends… black people don’t have enough white friends.” You know, this is Sandy—this is who she was. And we have to learn to love our fellow man. There were so many videos of her that I couldn’t include in the film that spoke to this, about really loving somebody even if they don’t treat you right. If you’re attacked racially—ask them why, where does that come from. Don’t just hate as a response. I think Sandra in her spirit was about hearing all sides.
But did you have any concern, that in focusing on the officers’ side that you would unintentionally promote the Blue Lives Matter angle?
I believe that knowledge is power. People can only stand to learn by hearing from the Texas authorities. They may agree, disagree, be outraged, etcetera, but they will know more, and be wiser for it. Of course, everyone will see the film (and any film) through their own lenses. How the Blue Lives Matter people interpret it and use it is beyond my control. I just have to trust my heart and mind that we did our best to present the Waller County folks in a way which supports what really went down. And it is quite damning. Both the DA and Sheriff Smith are in the film stating that they made profound mistakes. Finally, if we chose to not present the Texas authorities at all, then we’d be handing the Blue Lives Matter group a weapon to completely and rightfully slam the film as being biased and dismissible. The opposite of what Sandy would want. She was about dialogue. Whether they are open to hearing it or not is up to them.
When did you decide to include and weave Sandra’s voice into the film? Is that something you knew you’d do from the beginning or was it decided later on?
Well, the minute we knew there were “Sandy Speaks” videos, it was such a natural thing to do. Not only was she charismatic and articulate, [she] spoke to so many issues that were embedded in what happened to her, in terms of her run-in with law enforcement. But it’s also such a rare opportunity to help bring somebody who’s died in police custody, or in the hands of police—that kind of death, it’s so rare to have access to that person in a more three-dimensional way. We don’t have such videos of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin perhaps, or a lot of victims of law enforcement. So Sandy, I felt, through her videos, could speak for a lot of people whose lives we may not get to know in the same way, or as well.
How was it working on this, emotionally, for you? Did this take a toll on you at all?
Yes. I mean, it’s funny. I saw it the other night after not seeing it for a while and I was crying again. [Long pause] Definitely. It’s incredible this still goes on. I think that Sandy’s story, as extraordinary as she was… The seeds of what happened are very ordinary. It happens all across the country, every day. Many people live to tell the story so they don’t make the headlines maybe, but it’s really damaging. My short, Traffic Stop, was about that. I mean, it leaves people scarred for life. It’s really important to remember these folks are not statistics. They are, each one, a full human being. Their loss leaves a whole family forever grieving. She was in a system—we’re not in a position to blame one bad guy because there’s no proof that there’s one bad guy who went in and killed her. But I think we can examine along the way where the system broke down and treated her with a cold indifference that we need to wake up to.
You mentioned seeing the film many times before this. Was it the family’s first time watching it last night?
For a couple of the sisters, it was.
When you were with them after, what did they tell you about their thoughts on the film?
One sister said to me that what she liked about the film is that it allowed Sandy to speak for herself. That’s what they wanted, was to help create a legacy for Sandy. That people would get to know her better as a person, and grow to love her. To help peel back the layers of the onion and consider more deeply what went on.
Were you at all nervous about how they would react/perceive it?
Oh, definitely! My heart was in my mouth. The other night when we had to show Sandy’s mother, Geneva, and Shante, her sister, I was really nervous. You never know. It’s deeply personal. I can’t imagine being in their shoes. I felt, on one hand, incredibly sorry for them in a way because I felt like sitting through the film might victimize them again in some way, but I also felt like it will shift from being a film that brings back emotions from being there to being a film that helps teach people. And can become a political tool, or a tool for social activism. So they have to go through that process of just sort of feeling a little sad but then helping the film get out there and do something for the world.
In retrospect, is there anything you would’ve done differently or are you happy with the final result?
Documentaries are made with so many limitations—whether it’s not having full access or not getting the perfect shots, there are so many that, to me, the end product is always the result of cobbling together the best of. And so, I’m astonished that we could do it at all in a way. So no… I felt really lucky and honored to meet an incredible family. To gain their trust. I feel like the chemistry was there. And HBO, I know, cares about this for the right reason. They felt from the beginning that Sandra Bland deserved a story. I also felt lucky that law enforcement would step in, the DA and the Sheriff, and allow us to interview them. The sheriff said, “This is my last interview, I’ll never do this again.” But they need to tell their side, too, and everybody needs to hear each other, and learn from it, hopefully.
Are they the ones who gave you access to the photographs of Sandra in the jail cell and those other detailed, sort of graphic images that you included in the film? I was sort of taken aback by those, as I’m sure many others in the room were. How did you get access to those and footage of the autopsy, plus the other private scenes, and why did you choose to include them?
Well, they are upsetting, I understand. We first had access to them through the legal people involved because they become private record in a sense, as the dash cam was. And the reason we have those images, and the autopsy, in the film is because it’s really important for people to understand how serious this is and for them to see death in the face a little bit. It also, pictorially, brings to light the mystery surrounding some of the forensic stuff. It’s really hard to look at, but when you see the leaf embedded in her back, for example, that is visual proof of what they were talking about. That she was kneed so badly by the police officer that she had a piece of leaf under her skin? To me, personally, that was not a discussed point that I had to show. It drives home the level of aggression that she faced on the roadside. It’s not an easy choice to put those in, but I feel like in this day and age with the stuff that people show on TV, if we sanitize it too much, a general public won’t feel the incredible loss of life.
You did a good job of showing the outpour of support and rage across the nation when Sandra died. Bu similar to other cases, that sort of died down. What do you hope this film does for the audience?
I hope that Sandra’s message comes though. Racism is alive and well still. It’s pervasive and it hides in the crack sometimes. It’s not always in a dash cam or an officer. It’s also lies and police protocol. In jail regulations. I just want people to care, and to go, “It’s time to change.” By seeing Sandy as a person, as a three-dimensional person who had so much potential and see how she really fell at the hands of a system that unwittingly, unknowingly maybe, is framed to break the spirit of such an intelligent, promising individual then we’re not living as compassionate people and our society is really off if that’s the norm, if that’s allowed. So we have to really examine ourselves and create a dialogue that calls out, as Sandy says, “call out racism when you see it,” and let’s hear each other, not just run from it.