By Sam Piha
We first met Karina Epperlein years ago at a screening of her film, Finding the Gold Within. This documentary chronicled the transition of young black men from high school to college, the issues of racism they encountered, and the role of Alchemy Inc., an afterschool program in supporting this transition. We were so taken by the film, that we sponsored several screenings in the San Francisco Bay Area. (To watch or stream Karina's documentary, Finding the Gold Within, click here.)
We also invited some of the young men to talk about their experiences. Later, we featured Karina, a drummer from Alchemy Inc., Kwami Williams, and Darius Simpson (a young poet featured in the documentary) at our How Kids Learn Conferences.
Karina was recently in the news about a Black Lives Matter mural that she is painting on her garage in Berkeley, Ca. To view the news report on this, click here. We caught up with Karina to ask her a few questions as issues of race are back in the news. Below are Karina’s responses to our interview questions.
Q: Why did you choose the topic of race and racial identity as a theme in your film, Finding the Gold Within?
A: In the fall of 2010, almost 10 years ago, my first visions for Finding the Gold Within took hold of me. Of course I knew that the film would unavoidably have to deal with racism in America, even though Alchemy is not overtly addressing those issues in their highly sophisticated, astonishingly effective and unique work. The theme of racial injustice weaves itself throughout the film because that has been and is the everyday reality for African Americans. Not just now, but for 400 years. Racism is America’s biggest "story."
Once I witnessed in person Alchemy’s work, it became clear to me that it was unavoidably highlighting a wound in American society. Getting close to the “Alchemy family” and my six chosen protagonists for the film (and their families), we constantly discussed things “invisible” to many white Americans – like the Black man, feared and reviled, and the long history of that. Trust was built in part because I was German, with an accent, had not grown up in this country, and I naturally possess enthusiasm and passion for deep inquiry, authentic expression, and justice. I knew African American history and literature. The bloody history of slavery, oppression, criminalization – and so much denial and whitewashing. I knew about the ongoing murdering of Black people by state violence and hate. I had studied Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s work. So, I saw Kwame Shrugg’s (ED, Alchemy Inc.) work in the context of mythology, racism, injustice, and history. And in my interviews over the years, the protagonists kept confiding with stories about their ongoing struggle with racism, their confusion and fury.
Coming to this country in 1981, my background allowed me to see America’s racism early on. In the early nineties, I taught creative expression for five years as a volunteer in prison and three years in drug rehabs. This community work and critical reading, taught me about American society, culture, history, and its “two worlds or realities.” I knew that a country not dealing with its genocidal history is a dangerous country. Racism kills people’s ability to find the ‘gold within’ themselves and others. This is true for victim and perpetrator (and bystander) alike, whose hearts must whither.
Throughout the film, words quoting Ralph Elison and Langston Hughes fading in slowly turn to gold. Toward the end it says: “Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed – I, too, am America.”
Q: In what way did the experience of growing up in Germany effect your own views of race, racial identity and the need to confront America's issues of slavery?
A: Maybe this question I should have answered first because my background and upbringing has been crucial in my life and work. It is the red thread in my art. It has highly sensitized me to injustice anywhere. Everything I am and stand for, I owe to my parents’ incredible resilience, integrity, and goodness.
As a post-war German, I was born into moral and literal rubble, and into poverty. I grew up in an unusual family and a devastated culture where it was important to make sure that "never again" was a serious way of life – understanding and fighting fascism, anti-Semitism, racism and authoritarianism. Everyone was guilty. Shame and denial were pervasive, as well as great sorrow. In order to redeem ourselves many of us critically looked into our country’s history, society, institutions, and our inner selves so as not to repeat the horrors of the past. (Not all, but enough did this work.) This marked me for life. As a young person, I was rebellious and impatient, but 50 - 60 years later, Germany's society and culture finally had started to change palpably, almost unrecognizably so. The lessons are still alive. They are actively kept alive.
Now, six years since the world premiere of Finding the Gold Within, I would say a revolution is underway. Thanks to years of work by the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement there is growing awareness, reckoning and awakening is in progress. Eloquent truth telling is happening, old and new demands are being made. The voices of Black people are increasingly televised, seen, heard, printed, and listened to. But there is hope. White America’s innocence has been pierced, and denial exposed. Nevertheless, it will be a long road to bring about the needed change and true transformation.
Q: Can you provide an update on the protagonists in your documentary? Where are they now?
A: To read the full update and see where they are now, click here.
(Note: In a future post we will interview Alchemy Inc.'s, Executive Director, Kwame Scruggs).
Karina Epperlein is an independent filmmaker with over 45 years of experience as a theater artist, teacher and filmmaker. Her films have consistently looked into society’s dark corners, finding the light, and addressing themes of justice, transformation and healing. Her award-winning documentary work of twenty-two years spans themes from women in prison (Voices from Inside, 1996), the Armenian genocide, to dance and disability. Her short film Phoenix Dance (2006) screened in more than 120 festivals and theatres all over the world. It was “short-listed” for the 2006 Oscar Nomination for Short Documentary, and won numerous awards internationally, including a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco Int’l Film Festival.
Finding the Gold Within, her tenth film, had its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2014. The feature length documentary has been and is screening at numerous film festivals, theatres, conferences, think tanks, colleges, Black Male Summit, hospitals, public school districts, etc. – often with the film’s protagonists present for Q&A’s and/or workshops.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.