Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015: ‘3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets’

The 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival opens tonight with a timely, precise, and painful look back at the Jordan Davis trial in 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets.

“So I get to the hospital, and there was Jordan, sleeping. He appeared to be sleeping.” Ron Davis sits at a kitchen table, his hands folded, his tie lavender and his shirt soft turquoise. He’s recalling the moment when he had to identify his son’s body, after the 17-year-old was shot and killed at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida in 2012. “One of his eyes was halfway open,” Ron says, “like he could see me.”

Ron wipes tears from his own eyes, his ex-wife Lucy seated to his right, her hands also on the table before them so their hands appear to overlap in the frame. As you notice that her dress is patterned with flowers matching the turquoise in Ron’s shirt, you’re struck by their closeness, their harmony at once subtle, difficult, and heartbreaking. As they come together here, for an early scene in 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets — the opening night selection for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York — they reveal their grief, frustration, and resilience, as well as their ongoing struggles as these mirror the world around them.

In keeping with this superb Festival’s focus on social justice, rendered through compellingly specific situations from around world, Marc Silver’s documentary (opening in theaters on 19 June) makes Ron and Lucy’s struggles vivid and also intimate, beautifully composed and harrowing. Repeatedly the film cuts between the two parents’ experiences, their questions and their resolve: Lucy appears adjusting her makeup, curlers in her hair as her dog looks up at her, its big eyes seeming to absorb and reflect her grief in a brief shot sequence that’s almost jarring in its sentimental familiarity and distressing specificity.

Lucy also appears in church, her profile almost uncomfortably near in the frame as she sings along with an off-screen assembly. Ron heads to a café to share a meal and conversation with Jordan’s friends, called to testify about what they saw that night in November. Here too, the frame is tight, as Tevin Thompson and Leland Brunson remember playing basketball with Jordan, or try to make sense of what’s happened. “All of us could have been gone,” Leland says, “It’s kind of scary, it makes you realize life is short.”

All of them could have been gone, and any of them. The observation hangs over the film: for all the details it provides, 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets also indicates the context, provided by the film in its most immediate allusion — the killing of Trayvon Martin (“Trayvon’s father texted me,” Ron says, “‘I just want to welcome you to a club that none of us want to be in'”) — but also in allusions made by Tevin (concerning the use of “thug” in the courtroom and news reports) we can all provide since that trial, the killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. That context is wide and deep, but here, in this tiny courtroom, it feels focused, and not a little painful.

This effect emerges in the film’s thoughtful frame arrangements, looking at a range of faces and settings, close shots and long. Outside the courtroom, you see a kind of public sphere, abstracted and metaphorical, city streets and traffic, office buildings, life at a distance, while listening to TV reporters, their headlines crisp descriptions of events or teases for coming sensations. When you see crime scene photos or the gas station where the shooting occurred, the abstraction is at once reinforced and turned inside out, details at a distance, but also grim.

Ron and Lucy provide transitions inside the courtroom, their separate drives to and from each day’s proceedings suggesting the endlessness of the trial, long roads stretching ahead, in rain and sunshine. Inside the courtroom, the drama is at once taut and muted. Here you see Michael Dunn, the man who will be convicted of Jordan Davis’ murder, his face imprecisely expressionist. Your reactions to his apparent ignorance and sense of entitlement is shaped by his hone calls to his fiancée Rhonda Rouer, whose own testimony is as difficult to see and hear as anything else in this film. Her hand shakes each time she raises it to take her oath, her voice trembles, her face fills with dread. On the phone, she assures her fiancé that he’s “a spirit that is not meant to be caged, you are a spirit of the water,” this as you gaze on shots of the ocean, quiet and vast and unfathomable.

Rhonda’s raw-seeming testimony — and those of Jordan’s friends, also agonizing — are managed by the two lawyers, Florida’s Assistant State Attorney John Guy and defense attorney Cory Strolla. Watched over by Judge Russell Heaton, who appears in separate images, behind a typically ominous bench, the lawyers do what you’ve seen lawyers do on television so many times, their courtroom performances framed as a series of mobile shots observing their gestures and appeals to the jury, as well as their questioning of witnesses. While these exchanges suggest the usual manipulations, setting sides against one another in moral battle, they’re also testaments to how this and other stories like it are turned into spectacle.

What’s striking about this spectacle, as 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets makes clear in its visual precision, is its seeming control, its capacity to package and provoke, and also its utter chaos. Born of death and cruelty, of distrust and fear, the spectacle is yet a product, and as such a lens through which to reconsider how such violence erupts. If Dunn is frightening to hear as he calls the boys names and insists they threaten him with their sense of entitlement, his language and demeanor also suggest his own self-image, as the “victim” in this trial, the man who meant to stand his ground and is now “punished”. His vision is unsustainable, but you might see how he came to it; that process is the longer road ahead.

RATING 8 / 10