In a documentary filmmaking class during her junior year at CU, Katrina Miller (Jour’07) made a short movie about her friend, a Black student who’d received a racially charged letter threatening her to step down from her post as student body president. Miller’s video didn’t make it out of the classroom (though her peers did give her a standing ovation), but Miller never forgot the pride and passion she felt drawing attention to injustice.
Now, 15 years later, Miller is once again using documentary film as a vehicle for social change. Miller, along with Beret Strong (Engl’83) and John Tweedy (Engl’82), are sparking important conversations about race and inclusion with their film This Is [Not] Who We Are, which explores the disconnect between Boulder's self-proclaimed commitment to diversity and Black residents’ lived experiences. Though National Geographic may have named Boulder the happiest city in America in 2017, that description is more true for some residents than others, the filmmakers argue.
“A big reason why I got into film and video is because of the storytelling aspect,” said Miller. “It can be a great influencer, and I’ve always known that there are certain issues in the world I want to address and the best medium to do that, for me, was film.”
The film centers on a recent incident that made headlines around the world: In March 2019, Boulder police officer John Smyly confronted and, ultimately, pointed his gun at Zayd Atkinson, a Black man and a student at Naropa University who was picking up trash outside of his dorm as part of his work-study job. When demonstrators took to the streets to show support for Atkinson and protest racism, the filmmakers grabbed their cameras and got to work.
But the movie goes much deeper than this moment, exploring how Boulder’s earliest history made it nearly impossible for people of color to succeed in the idyllic city in the shadow of the Flatirons. Featuring historical context and emotional interviews with present-day Black residents of Boulder — including children and teens grappling with racist bullies at school — This Is [Not] Who We Are shows another side of a city that views itself as progressive.
“We still have people who really believe that Boulder is just this perfect town, who believe that what happened to Zayd was an isolated incident, so I want to reach every single resident somehow, some way,” Miller said. “Everyone really needs to open their eyes to all the truths of their community so we can fix it.”
Despite the documentary’s bleak outlook, the filmmakers remain optimistic, due in large part to the positive reception of the film so far. This Is [Not] Who We Are won a prestigious People’s Choice Award when it premiered at the Boulder International Film Festival in March, and after the screening, scores of people eagerly participated in a call-to-action discussion session.
Now, the creators are fielding requests to screen the film in Boulder and beyond; they’re also creating accompanying study guides to help people understand and discuss the themes depicted in the film.
“[The positive reaction] makes me want to work even harder toward fixing these problems, and I’m feeling that same sense of energy and responsibility from audiences,” said Miller. “It feels like they are jumping on this train with me after watching the film and hearing the stories.”
They hope that after viewing the film, people will feel motivated to take action or start down a path of self-education, however they feel compelled to — whether that’s by joining the Boulder County branch of the NAACP, reading books on white privilege, having difficult conversations about race and ethnicity or something else entirely. More broadly, they hope as many people as possible will view the documentary and “join us in trying to be the community that we want to be,” Miller said.
“Film is the tool you can use to help other people say what they need to say,” said Strong. “It’s a facilitation. And then you make it beautiful, you hope, so that lots of people are moved by it and want to engage with it. And then you see if it can help galvanize dialogue and maybe some positive action.”
Learn more at thisisnotwhowearefilm.com.
Photos stills from This Is Not Who We Are