“Resilience,” says San Francisco filmmaker Helen Cohen, “is a little bit of an overused word.”
But it is a theme she can’t seem to avoid these days — in daily life and politics, in Judaism and in her art.
The subjects of “Arc of Justice,” the latest documentary from Cohen and her husband, Mark Lipman, embody resilience. The 22-minute film, playing March 25 in the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, tells the tragic yet ultimately triumphant story of New Communities, a collective of black farmers in Georgia.
New Communities grew out of the civil rights movement. After a voter registration campaign in southwest Georgia led to mass evictions of black people from the land where they lived and worked, the civil rights organizers made it their mission to secure independent land and economic opportunity for African Americans in the area.
In 1969 New Communities formed the first community land trust (CLT), a nonprofit organization that acquires land and sells or leases out the properties on it at permanently affordable rates. The original New Communities members developed the model after taking a formative trip to Israel, where they toured kibbutzes and moshavs.
The group launched a collective farm near Albany, Georgia, but years of racist attacks, denial of credit and drought led to its eventual foreclosure in the 1980s.
Black loss of land is a familiar story and one that continues to play out today, including in the filmmakers’ home city of San Francisco.
But what makes the New Communities story remarkable is that justice eventually prevailed. In 1997, the members were part of a class-action lawsuit brought by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture that alleged discrimination in the distribution of loans. Years later, they were shocked to hear they had won big, in what is considered the largest civil rights settlement in history.
Now, many of the original members once again run a thriving farm and education center in Georgia — on land that belonged to one of the largest slave owners in the state.
“We were just kind of blown away by the whole story,” Cohen says.
“Arc of Justice” was initially conceived as a sort of educational video for groups looking to launch CLTs, which some believe could solve the affordable housing crisis. Cohen and Lipman, who make commissioned and feature-length independent films as Open Studio Productions, both have experience working in or documenting community development. The duo has produced other public interest films about CLTs and equitable development efforts.
But it quickly became clear that “Arc of Justice” would have much wider appeal. “What we’ve ended up with is this major civil rights story that spans 50 years,” Lipman says.
Another film Cohen and Lipman made at Open Studio Productions was “Street of Dreams,” about grassroots activists in communities of color who use a CLT to preserve affordable housing and avoid displacing longtime residents. Another one of their films is the award-winning “States of Grace,” which told the story of a major transformation of a revered physician and her family in the wake of a life-changing accident.
Though their films are not Jewish, Cohen says that Judaism does indeed inform their work.
“Not in a superconscious, deliberate, spelled-out way,” she says. “But I think in terms of the values of tikkun olam that have informed our lives and our work, and the world, absolutely. There’s a way that a basic sense of values — more than spirituality, but the cultural issues and history, and the teachings of Judaism — that I think have informed our work as filmmakers, activists, people.”
Viewers of “Arc of Justice” are treated to incredible archival footage of the Albany Movement and the farm, both in its early days and as the group faces foreclosure.
The filmmakers, with the help of CLT scholar John Emmeus Davis and New Communities member Mtamanika Youngblood, secured interviews with a dynamic cast of characters. The stars of the show are founding members Charles and Shirley Sherrod, who recount the emotional saga. Congressman and civil rights giant John Lewis, a former member of New Communities, also appears in the film.
“Arc of Justice” premiered last year at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival during a six-film program tabbed “Take Action Day: Repairing the World, One Film at a Time,” which was an appropriate setting for a number of reasons. Jewish allies were active in the civil rights movement, and the New Communities members drew heavy inspiration from the Jewish National Fund practices they observed in Israel.
And there’s that concept of resilience — of considering the long arc of justice and the human ability to keep going after tragedy.
“This,” Cohen says, “is where I feel like the Jewish history and tribe really do inform us.”