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Democracy Pitt-Style

Written by Ezra Christopher

During the 2008 Democratic National Convention, several Pitt people sat among thousands in the night darkness of the Rockies, not far from Denver. On a 20-foot screen framed by soaring sandstone boulders, a short documentary about civil rights activists played. The Pitt viewers had already seen the video—they helped to produce it for the evening’s film competition.

On screen, the elongated image of activist Amelia Boynton-Robinson appeared. She was poised in her living room, wearing turquoise earrings and a purple blouse.

“People are beginning to realize that the color of the skin makes no difference whatsoever,” she said, her voice booming around the amphitheatre. “Because we are one race, and that’s the human race.”

While the video played, Pitt junior Peter Kusnic recalled filming Boynton-Robinson in her living room during a trip to the South. He listened to her talk about how police sprayed tear gas on her at the 1965 Bloody Sunday march, and he was awed that, at age 97, she was still advocating for equality as vice chair of The Schiller Institute, an international human rights organization.

Kusnic, an English major, met Boynton-Robinson through a summer film course on the U.S. civil rights movement taught by Pitt adjunct professor Jen Saffron and supported by an Amizade service-learning program. For an oral history film project, he and students Gary Wingfield Jr., Andrea Zimmer, Erin Lanzendorfer, Elaina O’Brien, Keith DeVries, and Nick Moreland (from American University) traveled to Alabama and Georgia to interview advocates and church leaders who witnessed the historical bus boycotts and marches in the 1950s and ’60s. Monica Cwynar (SOC WK ’07) was the course facilitator, helping students deal with emotions evoked by the intense material.

The students edited 25 hours of raw film into a five-minute video called Democracy: A Steady, Loving Confrontation. Then they entered the video in the national Cinemocracy Film Festival competition, “How Do You Define Democracy?,” sponsored by the Denver Film Society and the Democratic National Convention host committee.

That night, during the convention, the video was shown as one of the festival’s top 10 films, selected from a pool of 112 entries. When the video ended, there was silence. Then the crowd erupted into fervent applause. Kusnic and his classmates clapped along, wowed by the reaction. The film won the top prize in the national competition.