By Noma Faingold
Longtime partners in life and in documentary filmmaking, Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow sat cozily close together, sipping frothy coffee drinks and sharing a pastry in a covered café parklet on a rare rainy September day in San Francisco.
Snitow, 74, had his New Yorker magazine tucked next to him on the bench. It was turned to a page with a half-completed crossword puzzle.
“We already read the New York Times this morning,” said Kaufman, 67.
An oversized color postcard of their latest documentary, “Town Destroyer,” was displayed on the table. They are in the early stages of promoting the 55-minute film about the controversial murals at George Washington High School in the Richmond District. “Town Destroyer” will have its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 6-16, with the first of three screenings at the CinéArts Sequoia Theatre in Mill Valley, Oct. 8, at 8 p.m.
The 13 panels, painted on the walls in the hallways of George Washington High School in 1936 during the Great Depression by politically leftwing immigrant artist Victor Arnautoff (who was influenced by muralist Diego Rivera), are polarizing, particularly in this city and in the current political climate because they depict Washington’s life in its flawed entirety. Yes, he was the first U.S. president and the country’s military leader. But he was also a slave owner and land speculator. He became known among Native leaders as the “Town Destroyer” after he directed the bloody seizure of Native lands.
The most incendiary image shows a life-size dead Indian, face-down on the ground, being ignored by the armed white men in the painting. The visual may be too real and graphic for some viewers.
The film opens with one of three 2019 school board meetings focusing on the issue of what to do with the murals. It was well attended by the public. Snitow and Kaufman captured the heated arguments and tearful pleas of parents who believe the students were being traumatized by the imagery.
Initially, the board voted to paint over the murals. Some time later, they compromised to have them covered, rather than destroying the art, because many in the community, including Native artists, made a strong case for preserving history and not censoring art. Ultimately, the board reversed its earlier decisions and are letting the murals stay – for now.
“Our views kept changing as we learned and went through the process,” Snitow said. “We weren’t interested in making a film that was about taking one side or a position. The idea is to really try to listen to people, even if they are extremely angry.”
“I became more sympathetic to everybody,” Kaufman added. “We did not intend to make an advocacy film, and it was the right decision. You want people to walk out of the theater asking questions.”
One of the experts interviewed in the film, Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of History at UCLA, summed up the film’s ambiguous point of view.
“There are not two sides,” Kelly said. “There are multiple perspectives. No one person can tell the story. No one group can tell the story. Every story that we tell is incomplete.”
San Francisco native Kaufman, who grew up in the Sunset District and graduated from Lowell High School, was the director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) before she started making films with Snitow, who was a broadcast journalist at KTVU-TV and KPFA radio. She asked him to be on the SFJFF board. It took 17 years of working together and being together before they got married.
The Berkeley residents, who Kaufman jokingly described as a “corporate merger,” don’t so much finish each other’s sentences as converse as a tag team, much like the way they collaborate on filmmaking, as with their other feature-length documentaries, “Blacks and Jews” (1997), “Secrets of Silicon Valley” (2001), “Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water” (2004) and “Company Town” (2016).
“We both do everything,” said Kaufman. “We critique each other all the time. It’s actually good when we disagree. We talk it through and work it out. I can’t really imagine doing a film alone. I don’t know how people do that.”
“Town Destroyer,” a documentary by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, will have its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 6-16), at the CinéArts Sequoia Theatre in Mill Valley, Oct. 8, 8 p.m. Other screenings: Oct. 14, 1:15 p.m., Rafael Film Center and Oct. 15, 1:45 p.m., Roxie Theater, S.F. Ticket information: mvff.com.