Produced by Angela Golden Bryan, Fireburn the Documentary is a powerful short on the human rights violations that occurred during the Fireburn, the bloody Labor Revolt of 1878, on the Island of St. Croix, current day US Virgin Islands. The documentary follows Bryan’s Amazon #1 Bestseller book Fireburn the Screenplay published in 2018 and will air on PBS in 2022. It makes its global debut at various film festivals this year and was just awarded Best Documentary Short at the Chicago Indie Film Awards. Fireburn is the forgotten story that centers around the event known as the Fireburn which took place post-emancipation. The documentary looks at the inhumane treatment of the freed laborers, female empowerment, colonialism and the consequences of suppressing a person’s basic human rights. Filmed on the island of St. Croix, Fireburn is designed as a tool for cultural preservation and education. Storytellers, historians and artists share their knowledge of the event in order for audiences to gain a holistic view of the Fireburn. The documentary helps bring the story to a global stage and new audiences. The story was immortalized on March 31, 2018 in a sculpture in Copenhagen, and made world news headlines - as the first public monument of a black woman. The monumental, award-winning public sculpture, “I am Queen Mary” of the rebel queen who led the revolt, has been immortalized into a Danish history book's cover by Forlaget Columbus. The documentary has been selected to be screened in three major film festivals to date, including International & Black Diversity Film Festival (IBDFF), Chicago Indie Film Awards and New Haven International Film Festival. Bryan and her team have been selected for Best Short Documentary by a Black Filmmaker and Best Short Documentary in the International Film Category at the IBDFF. The IBDFF is a Toronto based independent film festival established to give a platform to Black Filmmakers while celebrating cultural diversity through inclusion. Fireburn has also been selected in two categories at the New Haven International Film Festival - Best Documentary Short and Black Lives Matter, African American History & Social Justice. The New Haven International Film Festival is Connecticut Film Festival's culminating event showcasing a cadre of handpicked films in half a dozen venues throughout the state. Chicago Indie Film Awards is an IMDb qualifying monthly and annual festival, which celebrates and recognizes Independent indie filmmakers from all over the world. It was with great pleasure to interview Angela Golden Bryan.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
I grew up on the island of St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands, and whenever we had gatherings, the adults were always telling stories and jokes. Storytelling was big when I was growing up and I used to love to listen to the adults. I’d pretend that I was playing, and not listening, since it was considered rude to listen to adult conversations. I guess it’s in my blood because I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to bring a smile to someone’s face by telling a story or making them laugh. It’s funny how our basic personalities are set from so young, because that’s exactly who I still am. Today, this translates into being an entrepreneur, actress, writer,and producer. I still love to tell stories, but now my methods are a bit different. Rather than speaking to my dolls, or family members, I’m writing books and producing film projects. I just finished producing a documentary, and I am in pre-production for a new animation project, and a feature film.
The title of your documentary is “Fireburn the Documentary,” what is the Fireburn?
The Fireburn is a historical event that took place in the Danish West Indies, which are current day US Virgin Islands. Slavery had been abolished in 1848, however, 30 years later, the free laborers were still subjected to harsh working and living conditions. Despite yearly promises that conditions would improve, nothing changed. The freed blacks continued to work in the sugar cane fields, as they had done in slavery, and were not paid fairly or treated humanely.
On October 1, 1878, four female laborers rose to leadership and lead a massive and bloody revolt. During a 5-day span, the laborers torched hundreds of acres of sugar cane fields along with plantation homes. Many lives were lost during the Fireburn and change did come, but at a very high price.
Why did you choose the topic of the Fireburn for your documentary?
I belonged to a speaking club called Toastmasters and I needed to tell a story that was true and took the listeners on an emotional roller coaster. I was clueless to what story I’d tell. During a family party that weekend, my aunts Gerda and Jenny were telling stories and they shared that my great-great-great-grandmother, Moriah, was involved in the Fireburn. I knew that the Fireburn was a pivotal event in Virgin Island's history, but I'd never known that my family was involved in it. I immediately wrote a story that combined my family’s story with some of what I knew about the Fireburn. The story received awards and other clubs were asking me to come and tell them the story. I realized that even though this event occurred in the 1800s on an island in the Caribbean, people of all ethnicities, regardless of where they were from, could relate to it and found it interesting. It seemed like a natural choice for my first film project because it is so relatable since what we are really talking about is human rights. It is Black Lives Matter in the 1800s.
How did you fund your film and what were some of the challenges of making this documentary?
When my mother passed away, she left me some money and I decided that rather than paying off all my bills, I’d use $15,000 and make the documentary. I had done some research and concluded that this is the amount I needed. I was greatly mistaken! While shooting on the island of St. Croix, all of our meals were paid for by sponsor restaurants – that was huge. I also created a couple of fundraisers; one on Indiegogo and the other on GoFundMe. We are so grateful for the individuals who pitched in and helped move us forward, but we still needed money to cover post-production. I had not taken into consideration the importance of marketing, the expense of film festivals and so many of the other expenses that go with producing a film. I was prompted to apply for a major grant from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and we were pleasantly surprised when we received it.
I was going to say that COVID19 created a challenge for us, but that’s not true, because during 2020 we did not have the funds to complete the documentary, so we would have been “stagnant” either way. If anything, knowing the entire world was pretty much shut down, helped me cope with the fact that the documentary was not moving forward at the pace that I desired. I’m working on being patient and that is a quality that is a MUST in filmmaking because there are so many moving parts and people involved.
Do you consider yourself an indie filmmaker and what would most be the most difficult thing about being an independent artist?
For so many years I did not pursue many of my dreams because I told myself “I don’t know how to do that.” We live in a time where we are inundated with information, as well as mentors and people who do know “how to do it,” whatever “it” is. Once I embraced that fact, I decided to move forward with my documentary because I realized that I would surround myself with people that did know what to do. My co-producer, Marjorie Tingle, was instrumental in this because she is incredible at connecting people together and researching. She encouraged me and helped me to believe we could do it. I understood that we’d make mistakes along the way, and I vowed that I would learn from those mistakes. It’s taken me a while to call myself a filmmaker but that is what I am. It’s funny that when a person is caught stealing or lying, they are called a thief and a liar…I’ve been “caught” making a documentary, and will continue to make more – that makes me a filmmaker. This is just the beginning and I have so much to learn. I am enjoying the journey.
For me, the most difficult thing about being an independent artist is that I’m not really independent…in order to create a work bigger than myself, I have to depend on others. I’m a bit impatient and I’ve found that, just like I have my own time table and priorities, so do other people. This means that my project isn’t necessarily on the top of their list and I have to do that dreaded thing called “wait.” I’m learning to chill though.
What is the distribution plan for your film?
We have been so focused on completing the documentary and getting it into film festivals that we can finally focus on that. We are looking at educational institutions, PBS and individual viewing, as it lends itself well to this type of distribution. I’m also looking at joining a filmmakers-run distribution company whose target is mainly educational institutions.
What is your cinematic goal in life and what would you like to achieve as a filmmaker?
I’d really like to get more comfortable and knowledgeable at filmmaking, without going back to a formal school. I’ve had enough of sitting in a classroom! I’d like to shadow more experienced filmmakers and learn from them so that I can go on to making more films. I’d love to learn about directing as well. I’ve used to being in front of the camera, but I must say that creating the film is quite intriguing.
What kind of impact would your documentary have in the world and who is your targeted audience?
I’ve had many speaking engagements as a result of my other Fireburn projects being noticed, and I know that the documentary will have an even greater impact due to the power of film and the distribution opportunities. The story of the Fireburn showcases human resilience, strong female leadership, hope, and empowerment. The documentary will create opportunities for dialogue, something very powerful for healing and ensuring that human rights atrocities don’t happen again. We must keep the conversation going, not with angst, but with a desire for making this world a better place. It is an opportunity to teach a new generation about history, serves as a tool for cultural preservation and educates those unfamiliar with this pivotal point in US Virgin Islands’ history.
I know the importance of a niche audience, however, due to the its diversity, theme and the timing (BLM), I believe that it is suitable for an even larger target audience than I originally intended. The Fireburn is African Diaspora history because many of the freed laborers were of African descent; it is obviously Caribbean history; it is Danish history since the Virgin Islands were owned by Denmark at the time of this event; and it is US history since the Virgin Islands are US Territories. Even with this rich and diverse background, the Fireburn is little known outside the Virgin Islands. Those interested in history, human rights, female empowerment, and documentaries would be a great audience for Fireburn the Documentary.
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