Get to know ... Documentary filmmaker Gavin Guerra
WESTON — In 2012, Gavin Guerra picked up a book that changed his life.
Guerra had never heard of the book: “Parting the Waters: America in the Kings Years 1954-63” by Taylor Branch, but it was two dollars and had a Pulitzer Prize sticker and Guerra had a long flight coming up and thought he’d give it a shot.
“That book just freaked me out. I read the whole think shaking my head in disbelief that I didn’t know any of this,” Guerra said of Branch’s book of about the civil rights movement, the first in his trilogy on the topic.
Raised in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Rockland County, N.Y., Guerra, now 50, considered himself fairly well-educated but didn’t know any of the people mentioned in the book or the struggles they went through.
“One guy in particular leapt out at me. It was a man named Bob Moses,” Guerra, who moved to Weston in 2017 with his family, said.
Moses was a genius who was always the black man in the white man’s world, Guerra said. He went to Stuyvesant High School then Hamilton College then Harvard University. After school, Moses taught math at Horace Mann School in New York City and during this time was inspired by the Freedom Rides, a group of civil rights activists who challenged the segregation of public buses in the south, Guerra said.
Pulled to the movement, Moses went down to Atlanta to get a job with Martin Luther King, Guerra said.
“They sent him to Mississippi where everybody was afraid to go because Mississippi was the worst place on earth for a black person. He started organizing them, them meaning poor, illiterate sharecroppers, to register to vote and he would get beat up and thrown in jail and would just dust himself off and go back to work,” Guerra said of Moses.
A movement of thousands of young people built around Moses in what later became known as the Freedom Summer of 1964, during which nonviolent activists actively worked to register voters, with the belief that racial integration would follow, Guerra said.
After hearing of Moses’ profound yet not widely known impact on the civil rights movement, Guerra started pitching his documentary filmmaker friends to make a movie about Moses and, although many were interested, they were all working on projects and couldn’t take on the Moses film.
A visual effects supervisor by trade, Guerra didn’t think he had the ability to make the film himself, but later changed his mind because of the economics of his field and a separate stroke of inspiration.
While a student at Parsons School of Design in the 1980s, Guerra picked up the nascent field of computer graphics and went on to find success opening his own visual effects shop and worked on commercials and blockbusters ranging from the X-Men sequel to the Bugs Bunny/Road-Runner movies.
But the rise of streaming services led people to watch less commercials, and thus corporations didn’t pay visual effects shops as much to make them. Meanwhile, many companies, including Disney, took their visual effects in-house and stopped outsourcing to small shops like Guerra’s, which hurt his business.
“I figured if I was going to be making less money I might as well do something that I found really fascinating,” Guerra said.
Then, in 2013, Guerra attended an event at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, which was near his home at the time. At the event, a reunion of the cast of the 1977 miniseries Roots, the actors spoke of the endurance of racial discrimination to the present day, Guerra said.
“They said that if you think that you live in a post-racial society, you’re crazy. There’s still more work to do. Then they challenged the audience and said, “What are you doing, specifically, to advance the cause of social justice and equality in society?,” and I turned to my friend and said I’m going to make this movie about Bob Moses,” Guerra said.
For the last six years Guerra has worked on the film, “Let the People Decide,” and even got Bob Moses and several of his fellow civil rights heroes, including John Lewis and Julian Bond, to interview for the film.
When the supreme court struck down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, legislatures across the country once again implemented barriers to voting, such as strict ID requirements, and Guerra decided to make the film a “then and now” production and compare the movement for voting rights in the 1960s to the effort to break down voter discrimination laws present today.
Guerra hopes to show the documentary in film festivals next fall and fans can still donate to his post-production costs through a tax deductible contribution to the Film Collaborative.
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