NYU Journalism holds Q&A with the Vice team behind ‘Charlottesville: Race and Terror’

‘We’ve made some kind of difference’

Last night, NYU Journalism screened what is undoubtedly one of the most important documentaries to come this year: Vice News Tonight’s “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” which aired on HBO.

The film provided an immersive look at the “Unite the Right” white supremacy rally and the horrors that ensued last month in Charlottesville, Virginia. After the showing, students heard the production team involved talk through a Q and A format about what it was like to actually follow some of the Alt-Right members as they planned the rally, notably Chris Cantwell, who is heavily featured in the documentary.

The representatives for Vice included Elle Reeve, the primary correspondent on the scene, and producers Josh Davis and Tracy Jarrett as well as Zach Caldwell, the director of photography.

From left to right: Zach Caldwell, director of photography, Tracy Jarrett, producer, Professor Jason Samuels of NYU Journalism as the talk's moderator, Josh Davis, producer and Elle Reeve, correspondent

From left to right: Zach Caldwell, director of photography, Tracy Jarrett, producer, Professor Jason Samuels of NYU Journalism as the talk's moderator, Josh Davis, producer and Elle Reeve, correspondent

The documentary has received a lot of praise in regard to its placement of Reeve at the scene, and extensive b-roll footage with no voiceover, which in this case, served the story extremely well. It let the horrific events onscreen —like the tiki torch vigil at the University of Virginia on Friday night, August 11th, during which the white nationalist marchers chanted Nazi slogans, and the car plowing down counter-protestors on the following Saturday —speak for themselves.

“We’re trying to have a more immersive way of telling the story,” said Reeve, who has been tracking the Alt-Right movement since February 2016.

The team flew out on Friday afternoon once they heard that the white supremacy rally had been had been given the go-ahead by a federal judge.

“We thought we’d be late to the game,” admitted Davis. He also stated that they had intended to just make a three-minute segment on Charlottesville for their Monday night broadcast, which changed once Cantwell and other members of the movement permitted the Vice team to travel with them in their van as they prepared for their protest. “Once we got in the van and got access, we knew we’d be following them,” Davis said.

Reeve, Davis and Caldwell, all of whom had interviewed Cantwell in a Charlottesville park on Friday afternoon, spoke about the reality of confronting actual members of a group that, until recently, had seemed to many to only exist in the virtual realm of 4chan as Internet trolls.

“On the surface, they are very hostile, but you recognize that they want you to be there,” said Caldwell.

“I didn’t expect [Cantwell] to talk about violence as much as he did,” added Davis.

Reeve spoke about the trials and tribulations of attempting to maintain a neutral and composed stance as the group spouted their own takes on police brutality (Cantwell referenced the brutal killing of Trayvon Martin as if it were justified). Reeve evidently had to pick her battles, and make the tough decisions on what she could “allow to pass” for the sake of staying on the topic of Charlottesville.

“There’s not going to be a knockout punch where he says, ‘You’re right,’” said Reeve, “And if we ignored them, they would not disappear.”

They then spoke about what it was like to witness the most jarring event of that weekend: when an Alt-Right member drove straight into a group of counter-protestors, killing one woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 others.

“We heard what sounded like a dumpster falling off a roof,” said Reeve. The whole team stayed amidst the chaos to capture the aftermath and emotion. The documentary shows several counter-protestors approaching the producers to express their outrage.

“On Saturday, I got hit in the face, I got maced,” said Caldwell. “[The white nationalists] constantly flashing their flashlight into my lens.” He elaborated on how many of them tried to constantly act “macho,” to intimidate them.

Zach Caldwell, director of photography at Vice News

Zach Caldwell, director of photography at Vice News

After discussing what it was like to talk to Cantwell up close, especially during the final scene in which he reveals his many firearms, a knife and pride that no one on his side was killed, Reeve stressed the importance of the team dynamic.

They explained how it was important not only for each other’s safety on the scene, with Jarrett talking about how she had to mitigate some of the tension in the hotel room and know when it was time to get out, but also in the editing process, as they found themselves with hours and hours of footage for what had originally been intended to be a three-minute piece. “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” ended up occupying the entire Monday night slot for Vice News Tonight on August 14th.

“You build this incredible camaraderie with the people who were there,” said Reeve. “That’s stronger than the horror, which slowly fades away. We’ve made some kind of difference.”