To varying extents throughout the past several decades, the Oscar categories for Live Action, Animation, and Documentary Short have been little more than tie-breakers in Oscar pools and categories misunderstood and underappreciated by much of the telecast’s audience. In recent years, the nominated shorts have received growing theatrical distribution, an increased online presence, and screenings on PBS and other venues. Ultimately, what has kept these categories thriving is the artists and filmmakers that have been doing incredible work in the short form, giving audiences ample reason to seek these films out and challenging the perception of the potential impact of a short. Many of this year’s nominated short films are prime examples of this, including The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement. The film chronicles the Presidential Election of 2008, as seen through the eyes of “The Barber” Jesse Armstrong, a Civil Rights foot-soldier who counted Martin Luther King Jr. as a recurring customer and whose kids were the first to attend integrated schools. The Barber of Birmingham was co-directed and co-produced by photographer and first-time filmmaker Robin Fryday and Oscar-nominated documentarian Gail Dolgin (Daughter from Danang) who passed away before the film was completed. I recently spoke with Fryday about making her first film, being an Oscar nominee, and crafting The Barber of Birmingham.

Jackson Truax: What was the initial inspiration that led to going to the south to make The Barber of Birmingham?

Robin Fryday: We were heading into the election of ’08. It was before Barack Obama was nominated. I was sitting at home here in the Bay area…thinking about the people that brought us to this day…trying to imagine what it must feel like for those who fought for the right to vote, many of whom were still alive…to see the possible nomination and possible election of the first African-American President… I was a photographer. But I felt that this was something that needed to be captured and documented and would make a very compelling documentary. I decided that I would go spend some time in Birmingham and do some research and meet people. I was particularly interested in the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement… I think that most of us have heard of the leaders, but most of us do not know about all the thousands of people, men, women, and many times children who were the ones who were risking their lives and their livelihoods for integrating the schools, for voting rights. They were marching [for] sitting at the lunch counters. They were really the unsung heroes. Those were the people that I wanted to talk to and to meet. So that’s what I did.

JT: How did you come to meet and connect with Jesse Armstrong? How did he become the central character in the film?

RF: I went to Birmingham, and I went to the Civil Rights Institute. Then I was connected with Shirley Floyd, who worked at an organization called the Civil Rights Activist Committee… She has been very, very helpful and very influential throughout the making of this film up until the present day. I met a lot of the foot soldiers… Someone said to me, “Have you met The Barber?” So I took a trip to Mr. Armstrong’s barbershop. I saw Mr. Armstrong. He was this charismatic, adorable man wearing his bowtie and his plaid pants. He was waving me come into his shop. I looked around his small barbershop. It’s been there since 1950. Every inch of space is just covered with photographs and newspaper clippings and memorabilia from the Civil Rights movement. I ended up sitting for hours in his barbershop just listening to his stories of his personal involvement in the movement and how he integrated his two sons into the all-white grammar elementary school. He carried the original flag in the Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery. He was the first to move into an all-white neighborhood and had bomb threats to his home and his family and his dog was poisoned. Listening to how this man dedicated his life and sacrificed so much. His children and his family and his whole life made such great sacrifices for the betterment of the country. But in many ways he was just an ordinary man who worked in his barbershop. I felt that after meeting him that he represented so many of these foot soldiers, and that he would be a great person to tell the story through the lens of… And he was very, very willing to share his story. He knew the importance of passing along to the next generation. Mr. Armstrong used his barbershop as really his place to educate. Every person that sat in that chair heard his stories and was taught about the movement… Then I came back to the Bay area. By that time…Obama was getting nominated and we were getting closer to the election. I knew that this was an important moment to be captured… It was ironically through a hairdresser that I was introduced to my co-director [Dolgin] who passed away in 2010 after a very lengthy battle with breast cancer. [Dolgin] was an award-winning documentary filmmaker… I sent her pictures of Mr. Armstrong and descriptions of some of the people and the story as I saw it. [Dolgin] immediately…loved the story… She knew that her time was limited and this would be her last film. She was in the late stages of cancer. She [was] very passionate about this. So two weeks later we were off and shooting the election. We ended up having one year with Mr. Armstrong. from November of ’08 to November of ’09, when he passed away. [Dolgin] passed away the following October.

JT: What made you decide you wanted a co-director, and what did Dolgin bring to the project that was unique?

RF: I had never made a film. I didn’t have a background in filmmaking. So it was important for me to collaborate with someone who had that experience. I had talked to a number of different filmmakers… When [Dolgin] and I met, there was just an immediate connection… We talked about how we wanted to film it, how we wanted to tell the story. We were both on the same page. We just felt a real connection immediately. So it was a really good collaboration… She brought her vision. She brought her experience. She brought her expertise. She brought a team of people who she had worked with in the past… Our first editor had worked with her on her movie Daughter from Danang, Kim Roberts, and she is a wonderful editor. So [Dolgin] had resources and connections that I did not have… All of the films that [Dolgin] had made in her career were all around issues of social justice… She chose her films carefully. This was a subject that she felt passionately about.

JT: At what point did you decide to make it a short form? What led to that decision?

RF: [Dolgin] and I had developed an 18-minute sample. That was with [Roberts]. That sample we were using to help raise funds to make a full-length film. Then [Dolgin’s] health started to decline… When she was at the end of her life, she was in hospice care and she was in her bed in the middle of her living room. [Dolgin] called a business meeting [with] me and Judith Helfand from Chicken and Egg Pictures. [Helfand] came on at that point as co-producer. Chicken and Egg Pictures came on as Executive Producers. So [Dolgin] called this business meeting. And for an hour-and-a-half the three of us discussed the future of the film. So [Dolgin] was very much a part of the decision that was made on that day that we were going to leave this as a short. We were going to use the 18-minute sample that was had created and leave it intact as much as possible, as this was [Dolgin’s] last piece that she had worked on. And we were going to submit it to Sundance that day. So we did… [Dolgin] was really excited. She loved the idea that we were going to keep it as a short… It was more, I felt, as a gesture to [Dolgin]… [Dolgin] passed away two days after that meeting. Then a few weeks later…the first week in November, I got a call that we were accepted into Sundance. [Our] sample piece was far from being finished. At that point, a whole community that had worked with [Dolgin] in Berkeley…joined together to raise a lot of money and finish this film in a short amount of time… We were into December already, and we had to have it at Sundance by January 10th… We had to license and find all the archival footage and the music… We worked day and night for five weeks. I begged Sundance to give us more time. They gave me one more day. They gave me until January 11th at 5pm to have it there… This village came together, with all these Executive Producers and all the people that loved [Dolgin] and wanted to see this film finished and out there. And we premiered at Sundance last January.

JT: You said Armstrong was charismatic and excited to tell his story, but your interactions with him still feel very revealing and intimate. Was any period of time you spent building a trust or an intimate relationship with him?

RF: In my photography work I do a lot of travel to work with indigenous people in different cultures… I always spend a lot of time with my subjects and build that trust and build that rapport. I also teach photography to teenagers. That’s one of the first things that I teach. Because I think that’s so important. I think that makes all the difference. So I had spent that time with Mr. Armstrong when I first met him, even before I photographed him. I spent time hearing his stories, listening to him, getting to know him. Then when [Dolgin] came, we did the same thing. Although we didn’t have as much time then, as we were there with our whole film crew and were heading into the election and we had a short amount of time. But that relationship was established. We would call him all the time. He became like our grandfather. We were taking care of him. We felt so close to him. He opened up his shop and his home. His children were even surprised, because he wasn’t somebody that let everyone into his home. He trusted us, and he felt so comfortable and so willing to share his story. And he was a bit of a ham. He enjoyed it. So he opened up his home to us. He said, “Come anytime, day or night.” So we had full access and a great relationship with Mr. Armstrong.

JT: Most of the film was shot after the election. How did the film evolve during that period?

RF: There was a bus trip arranged by [Floyd] at the Civil Rights Activists Committee…for forty foot soldiers to go to the inauguration. It was very moving. Mr. Armstrong was invited and given a ticket to go as a special guest of the inauguration. But he said, “No. I want to go with my people on the bus.” So he wanted to be with the other fool soldiers. [Dolgin] and I were planning on being on this bus. We had our whole film crew there. And we were going to go to the inauguration with all the foot soldiers. Our plan was that…the foot soldiers would be looking back on how we got to this day. So that was the direction that we were going in. [Dolgin] and I were taking care of Mr. Armstrong. All his children live in different states. So we felt very responsible for making sure that he was going to be okay at the inauguration. We knew how cold it was. So [Dolgin] and I spent an entire day shopping for clothing for him, making sure he was going to be warm. We got a wheelchair just in case there wasn’t a place for him to sit down. We were doing all this preparation the day before… We went to go bring him some soup, actually. We found him in his home in congestive heart failure. So [Dolgin] and I ended up taking him to the hospital. He spent the inauguration in the hospital. So things changed as far as the direction of the film… Mr. Armstrong and his health took precedence over everything…. We ended up spending most of [that trip] in the hospital… We brought him in. They had asked me when he was in the emergency room to help him undress… He was so excited about going the next day to the inauguration that he dressed himself in layers of clothes and was going to go to sleep in those. So he had on all these layers of clothes and I was helping him undress, taking his shirts off and his trousers. We got to his shoes, and he said, “You can’t take those off.” And I said, “Why not.” And he said, “Because if they call me to march I have to be ready.” That was Mr. Armstrong. He was always ready.

JT: When you were in the South doing research and interviews, what did you see or hear or learn that surprised you the most?

RF: [Dolgin] and I were both most surprised by the same thing. We were expecting a different reaction…out of the people in the South and the people we were spending the time with, the foot soldiers, in terms of the election… Being from the Bay area, there was so much excitement and anticipation. When we got there, there wasn’t really the same kind of feeling. We couldn’t really understand what it was. And so we asked people. The feeling was from these people, the ones who had fought for the right to vote and now here they were voting… I think they didn’t allow themselves to get overly excited because they didn’t want to be disappointed. They also felt that this wasn’t the end. That this was just one more step… We were surprised…at the calmness and resolve of the people.

JT: What was the journey of the film after Sundance? Particularly between then and getting the Oscar nomination?

RF: We spent the last year in film festivals all over the country… While we were at Sundance, we got a call from the mayor of Birmingham. The mayor and [Floyd] made the decision right when we were on the phone at Sundance that before the film goes anywhere else that it needs to come home to Birmingham. At that time, a decision was made to host a premiere in Birmingham, which was held on March 3rd. This was an event like no other. It was held at the historic Alabama Theater, which was an all-white theater that Mr. Armstrong could not go in… It was one of those beautiful ornate theaters that seats over two thousand. The mayor was there, the governor. It was a red carpet, black-tie event. We had over 2,100 people. All of Mr. Armstrong’s children were there. It was the first time they had all come back to Birmingham… They left when they were in high school. They all live in different states. They sacrificed a lot. They went through a lot when they lived there, so coming back wasn’t that easy for them. But they were given medals and they were honored in such a way that it brought about a real healing in the family. That was an amazing event. After that we were at the SilverDocs Festival in Washington. We had a couple of different congressional screenings on Capitol Hill. Then we were in a number of different festivals… We have a national broadcast on PBS, their POV [series] which will be premiering in August. We’re very, very excited about that. We’ve been working with an organization called National History Day to develop curriculum and get this into the schools. Last week we [screened] in Birmingham…at the Harvard Theater [for] 600 high-school seniors from high schools all over Birmingham… We had about twenty foot soldiers there… First we showed the screening of the film. Then the foot soldiers one-by-one talked about their role in the movement and what they had done. Afterwards we had tables set up for the students to fill out voter registration forms. It was unbelievable. Because the kids were saying that before seeing this film and before hearing the stories of the foot soldiers that they probably would not have voted, and now they couldn’t wait to fill out their registration forms and vote. It had such an impact. That was really the goal that [Dolgin] and I always had for this film was to educate the next generation and to have an impact on voting. To see it in action like that was very rewarding.

JT: Now Barber of Birmingham is nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. What would winning an Oscar mean to you at this point in your life and career?

RF: I don’t even think I know what it means. Because it’s my first film… But for the foot soldiers, I think it brings much more recognition to the Civil Rights Movement, to those who made these sacrifices. So for that I’m thrilled. For my own career, like I said, I don’t even know what’s ahead yet… It’s funny. One of the first [Dolgin] said to me was, “Be careful Robin, you’ll get hooked.” And she was right. I do love filmmaking. I do plan on doing others. I have done a commercial assignment and do plan on doing more of that. I loved making this documentary. I now have some ideas…I’m sure there will be another.

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